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Like sports? Like drama? How about the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat? If you are nodding your head, A.E. Housman's "To an Athlete Dying Young" might just be your cup of… sports drink, or something. Despite the fact that this one is an oldie (it was published in 1896), it's still super-relevant: we still have sports and people, well, still die. So don't let the cobwebs fool you.
As you probably guessed, "To an Athlete Dying Young" is about an athlete that (surprise!) dies young. What is surprising is that Housman doesn't spend much time lamenting the young athlete's death. Instead, he pitches the positive aspects of dying young. Strange? You bet. And it's far from the typical approach in an elegy. But then A.E. wasn't a typical kind of guy.
Alfred Edward Housman (now you know why he went with A.E.) was born in England in 1859. Despite becoming a well-known scholar and poet, he tended to avoid the limelight. While most famous poets publish book after book after book, A.E. published only 2 books in his lifetime: A Shropshire Lad (in which "To an Athlete" appears) in 1896 and Last Poems in 1922. Still, he made his mark. With recurring themes like death and the loss of youth, his poems struck a chord with World War I English society.
All in all, Housman's career seems like a pretty good argument for quality over quantity. Someone should definitely tell Madonna.
"To an Athlete Dying Young" is about death, but it's also about fame. Like death, fame is nothing new, but we never seem to get tired of it. Fame has been around for as long as there have been people and language. We bet that cavemen sat around discussing some super-hairy guy that brought down a Wooly Mammoth with his bare hands. There were probably pictures of the guy scrawled across cave walls throughout the land.
Today, we live in what seems like a fame-obsessed society. If you don't believe us, just flip through a few cable television channels or surf the web for 5 minutes. Tons of what we watch and talk about has to do with fame: what actual famous people do and say, or what other people will do or say trying to get famous. Despite the fact that fame seems so important, most of us don't spend much time considering the nature of fame and what it is we are putting such a high value on as individuals and as a society.
A.E. Housman's "To an Athlete Dying Young" gives us a chance to consider just how high a value we place on fame. Your reaction to the poem will be a pretty good indicator of your level of fame-obsession. Do you, like the poem's speaker, think the athlete is a "smart lad," or lucky, for dying young and thus maintaining his hero-status in the public eye? Or does fame seem meaningless to you when faced with death? That's right—A.E. isn't afraid to ask the big questions.
P.F. on A.E.
For more fun Housman facts, check out his complete bio from the folks at the Poetry Foundation.
Here's a very clickable bio that breaks up Housman's life into easily digestible chunks. Gross.
When do you know you've made it as a poet? When you have your own "society." Here's a link to the Housman Society, the home for all things A.E.-related.
Lights! Camera! Poetry!
Here's a video project that uses "To an Athlete Dying Young" to remember runner Steve Prefontaine, who, like the athlete in Housman's poem, died… young.
Check out a dramatic reading of "To and Athlete Dying Young."
Take a Break
Here's your chance to put your feet up and listen to someone else read the poem—and read it well.
Bring in the Band
Composers Vaughan Williams and Butterworth (sorry, no relation to the maple syrup lady) set one of Housman's poems, "Is My Team Ploughing," to music. We thinks it's tough to dance to, but see what you think.
Dig the 'stache, gang.
Old Housman… and Chalk and Charcoal
Check out these photos and drawings of Housman from the National Portrait Gallery.
The New Yorker tackles Housman
Well, not so much tackles like in football, it just discusses, really.
Life (Sadly) Imitates Art
When a star high school athlete is senselessly murdered, a sports writer turns to Housman.
A Shropshire Lad
Here's the book in which "To an Athlete Dying Young" first appeared.
This is Housman's second (and last) collection of poems published during his lifetime.