To the young and healthy, death can often seem a courteous entity, one that will patiently await the completion of life's narrative before interrupting with its final word. Published in 1896, A.E. Housman’s “To An Athlete Dying Young” confronts us with the tragedy of death as it comes, not to the sick or elderly, but to a young man who stood in the eyes of his community as a living representation of human achievement.
During his life, the athlete’s professional achievements were celebrated by and gave honor to his community; they are abruptly halted by his death, which severs him from the town and makes him a citizen of the underworld.
The poem presents us with a way to perceive grief, but not with an answer to the seeming injustice of the athlete’s fate. However, within this new perception, Housman offers us a means of reconciliation with the unavoidable fact that death doesn't discriminate between old and young. Though the athlete obtains prematurely the citizenship we will all eventually share, those who are left behind can perpetuate his legacy, ensuring that his progress furthers theirs in their own pursuit of excellence.
The Height of Athletic Achievement
Housman begins his elegy, a poem written in honor of the departed, with several parallels:
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.
Today, the road all runners come,
Shoulder-high we bring you home,
And set you at your threshold down,
Townsman of a stiller town.
The two races, the sport and the life of the athlete, appear to have similar conclusions. Although the athlete in both cases arrives at his own threshold on the shoulders of his fellow townsmen, in the second case the town is stiller and the course is universal. The athlete is a townsman of another land now, and having in both cases been borne shoulder-high, he is now laid down at the threshold of his final resting place.
The poet doesn't laud him for the typical virtues of athleticism such as perseverance. On the contrary, he praises the shrewdness of the athlete for leaving the course before his record could be broken:
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.
On a first reading, the first two lines of the stanza can seem sincere, but further reflection uncovers the irony that lends a melancholy import to their hollow praise. A return to the lines shows them to be the subdued expression of heartbroken anguish, praising the youth for his shrewd choice when he really has no choice at all.
The third stanza attributes a conscious choice to the athlete in this regard, disdaining the fleeting fame of the earthly laurel and the fields of fast-fading glory. It resembles the choice of Achilles in the "Iliad" who said: “My mother Thetis tells me that there are two ways in which I may meet my end. If I stay here and fight, I shall not return alive but my name will live for ever: whereas if I go home my name will die, but it will be long ere death shall take me” (Book IX). Housman’s athlete, at this point, would seem to have faced a similar choice and followed in Achilles’s footsteps.
However, the next stanza switches to the passive voice, and it is instead the night and earth which have made the decision for the athlete:
Eyes the shady night has shut
Cannot see the record cut,
And silence sounds no worse than cheers
After earth has stopped the ears.
In this passivity, the athlete becomes the victim of tragic circumstance, and his “happiness” consists only in the fact that he is unperceiving; silence and cheers are one to him. At this point, another runner emerges in the form of renown, whose track record of victories against man is marred by loss to the recently deceased.
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.
In the end, the athlete’s laurel wreath is unwithered only because he has been so recently cut down at the height of his glory; the last line reveals that it will fade all too soon. The laurel, described as growing early but fading before the rose, becomes a parallel of the athlete who wears it. The athlete achieves excellence early but also dies early, and in this, the sorrow of the townspeople left to remember him is all the keener and more deeply impressed upon their memory.
The mention of the laurel wreath reminds us that the athlete is a paragon of physical excellence and health; in Greek times they were seen as almost godlike. Thus those who are left behind in the poem are left with a shaken worldview. When the strongest among us suddenly fall, our own lives suddenly seem far more uncertain and fragile.
The human pursuit of excellence is generally within us, our achievement of virtue having no outward marks. By contrast, the victorious athlete presents us with a physical embodiment of acquired virtue, perceptible by the eye as well as by the intellect. Aristotle defines virtue, or arete, as excellence, a habit formed by continual, deliberate decision to choose the good.
As illustrated in Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics: “Every virtue causes its possessors to be in a good state and to perform their functions well; the virtue of eyes, e.g., makes the eyes and their functioning excellent, because it makes us see well; and similarly, the virtue of a horse makes the horse excellent, and thereby good at galloping, at carrying its rider, and at standing steady in the face of the enemy.
"If this is true in every case, the virtue of a human being will likewise be the state that makes a human being good and makes him perform his function well” (Book II, 1106a).
The athlete, then, demonstrates publicly and visibly the pursuit of arete that should be reflected in our own interior lives.
The tensions in the poem between ironic and sincere interpretations, between overlapping victory and loss, compose an apt expression of the speaker’s grief and interior conflict. He can't reconcile the concept of glory, so closely linked to arete, with the undeniable tragedy of a young life cut short.
In consequence, he revises the concept of athletic excellence and links it to an unbroken record of victories in an attempt to mitigate the loss. Something about the death rings false and unnatural because the athlete had the potential for further accomplishments and seemed in all ways prepared to live a healthy and rigorous life. Though renown has not outrun him, he has run out of time, and the speaker struggles to praise him for what hollow victory might be salvaged from the tragedy.
The Race Well Run
Housman’s conception of the underworld has little to do with St. Paul’s "cloud of witnesses" (Hebrews 12:1) who have gone ahead, waiting to welcome the soul who ran well the race that lay before him. The “strengthless dead” are the antithesis of the athlete who embodied physical strength and vitality. The primary struggle of the poem is that there is no underlying faith to support the idea of life as a race that ends with an everlasting crown of righteousness.
As Glenn Arbery, president of Wyoming Catholic College, says in his analysis of the poem, Housman’s solution to the conflict doesn't come from the consolation of faith; rather, “the consolation is in form, in poetic form, in finding some expression for the emotion rather than in a religious faith.”
The concept of the afterlife present in the poem augments the sense of loss rather than assuages it because the athlete enters upon the “sill of shade,” a mere shadow of the full life he once enjoyed. Mr. Arbery continues and says that “the balances, the beauties of the parallel serve here as poetic form rather than consolation of faith.” Within these balances, we find some sense of beauty and order even in the face of one of life’s severest forms of disorder, namely the death of the young.
There is nothing that has the capacity to shake faith to its core like witnessing a young life cut short in the midst of its achievements. Housman comes tantalizingly close to giving us an easier means of shouldering the grief of such a loss, but the poem doesn't quite cross that threshold. He only demonstrates for us that no matter where the life ends, it is better that the end follows the fierce pursuit of arete.
The keener sorrow we feel for the young life is actually in itself the catalyst for a life well lived. As it passes into an unabating ache in memory, it has the capacity to more effectively spur those left behind to an active pursuit of virtue. In the midst of our sorrow, we are reminded that everything we have can be taken in a moment. Thus we are driven to more carefully pursue in life that which is most worthwhile, taking up the race and carrying on from where our companion has borne us on his shoulders.
Marlena Figge received her M.A. in Italian Literature from Middlebury College in 2021 and graduated from the University of Dallas in 2020 with a B.A. in Italian and English. She currently has a teaching fellowship and teaches English at a high school in Italy.