Study Guide

To an Athlete Dying Young Form and Meter

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Form and Meter

Elegy in Rhymed Quatrains

With all that rhyming and those repeated four line stanzas, you probably could tell "To an Athlete Dying Young" was following some kind of form and meter, even if you couldn't name it. Never fear, though, gang. Shmoop is here to help you put a label on those nondescript form-feelings.

First things first, this poem is, in the most basic sense, an elegy. An elegy is a poem composed on the occasion of someone's death. So, "To an Athlete Dying Young" definitely fits that bill.

It's a regularly shaped elegy at that. Those nice, tidy four-line stanzas are called quatrains. And the lines in each quatrain are written in something called iambic tetrameter. Let us translate: an iamb is a pair of syllables—the first is unstressed and the second's stressed. Say "allow" out loud and you'll heard what an iamb sounds like: da DUM. So, with iambic tetrameter, you have four units (tetra- means four), called feet (not those stinky things under your desk, these are poetry feet—which always smell like roses) that follow this unstressed-stressed syllable pattern. Check it out:

The time you won your town the race (1)

Hear that bouncy da DUM da DUM pattern? That's our friend the iamb at work. Kind of catchy, right?

Now, the end words of each line follow a very regular pattern too, better known as an AABB rhyme scheme. Check out the end words of lines 1-4 (where the letter in parentheses represents the rhyming sound):

race (A)
place (A)
by (B)
high (B)

Rinse and repeat for the next six stanzas, and you've got yourself a pretty regular little rhyme scheme there.

Now that you have the form and meter nuts and bolts, here's how the whole machine works together. Using quatrains, writing in iambic tetrameter, and using a very strong, regular rhyme scheme gives the reader a sense of certainty—we know what to expect from line to line in terms of sound and length.

This sense of certainty in the form is especially interesting when we consider the uncertainty of the content. The athlete has died unexpectedly. Life is fleeting and uncertain. We don't know how or when we will die. We don't know if we'll be remembered when we're gone. At least Housman gives us the comfort of AABB. The form mirrors our desire for certainty in an uncertain world.

The poem is about the fleeting nature of life and fame, and these themes stand out even more in contrast to the poem's regular, consistent form. Pretty neat trick A.E. At the same time, that regular rhyme and meter can feel downright inescapable, kind of like… (gulp) Death. Thanks for nothin' Housman.

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