Images of people dying young are viewed by many as one of the most tragic and inescapable fates imaginable. People aspire to live long and fruitful lives and would be quite appalled to have a premature death viewed in such a positive manner. However, in Alfred Edward Housman’s “To an Athlete Dying Young” the reader is given just that, an unconventional and oddly justifiable outlook at a young man dying an early death. This theme of short-lived fame during life (and even after death) is clear throughout the piece. It is necessary to be able to distinguish and understand this theme in order to comprehend the poem’s meaning. Throughout his work, Housman employs several prominent types of figurative language as well as archetype to develop his theme of fleeting glory.
The use of figurative language begins within the first stanza of Housman’s poem:
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. (Housman lines 1-4)
Within these lines, the speaker is having a direct dialogue with the athlete, as if he were still living. By allowing the speaker to apostrophize the deceased young man, who exemplifies fame by winning a race and therefore earning the praise and respect of the town, it appears that the speaker is thinking back on the life of the young athlete. The speaker is also giving him additional encouragement by stating that it is better to die at an early age than after one’s prime. This technique of apostrophe allows the reader to be a party to the bond between the speaker and the young deceased athlete. Another use of personification can be viewed in the lines, “Eyes the shady night has shut / cannot see the record cut” (13-14). Literally speaking, the night sky cannot reach down and shut anyone’s eyes. However, this line could imply that once the young man had died, he would be unable to see the next superstar athlete come along and edge out his time in the record books. Next, the lines “And silence sounds no worse than cheers / After earth has stopped the ears” (15-16), in addition to being an oxymoron, also refers to death as “silence”, meaning that death tends to eliminate one’s glory. The people cannot hear the cheers because of the silence that consumes the town. “And early though the laurel grows / It withers quicker than the rose" (11-12) The use of metaphor such as “roses" allude to the shortness and delicacy of life. Like the alluring flowers, which flourish only for a short time, then wither and die away, the young runner's life is brief and sweet. Finally, the “laurel” symbolizes both the victory this young man has in this winning this grand race, as well as the short-lived fame, glory and accomplishments in his life. Housman allows the laurel to give the athlete eternal fame even after his untimely death.
The term athlete connotes several things, strength, power, endurance and motivation. ...