Study Guide

To an Athlete Dying Young Quotes

By A.E. Housman

  • Death

    To an Athlete Dying Young (title)

    Housman didn't want there to be any confusion—this one is about death. It's right there in the title. However, he gives us a clue that he'll be trying to look on the bright side of the dark side (we mean death). The poem is to the athlete, as if he were still capable of hearing it.

    Today, the road all runners come,
    Shoulder-high we bring you home,
    And set you at your threshold down,
    Townsman of a stiller town. (5-8)

    The poem's second stanza sticks us right smack-dab in the middle of the athlete's funeral. But it doesn't seem so bad. The references to the athlete going home and being part of a town make the transition from the land of the living to the land of the dead seem like just a change of zip code and some new neighbors.

    Eyes the shady night has shut
    Cannot see the record cut,
    And silence sounds no worse than cheers
    After earth has stopped the ears. (13-16)

    That "shady night" is our old pal death. And according to our speaker, there are just all kinds of great benefits to being dead for this young athlete. Not only does he get his own pad in a new town, he never has to worry about seeing his record get broken, or missing the cheers of the crowd. He's going to be over there in the land of the dead and no longer concerned with stuff that happens in the land of the living. Great deal, right? Shmoop isn't so sure.

  • The Home

    Man and boy stood cheering by,
    And home we brought you shoulder-high. (3-4)

    The poem's first stanza ends with the speaker remembering a celebration after a big race. The victorious athlete is deposited safe at home by his adoring fans. Sweet. We can imagine a few final high-fives at the doorway, and then the athlete heads inside to unwind after a tough day of kicking tail and taking names. You know what they say—a young athlete's home is his castle.

    Today, the road all runners come,
    Shoulder-high we bring you home, (5-6)

    Things take a turn in the second stanza. We jump from the nice memory of the athlete arriving home on the shoulders of his adoring fans, victorious after the big race, to the athlete's casket being carried to his gravesite on the shoulders of the pallbearers.

    The phrase "shoulder-high," is repeated from stanza 1. The word "home" is also repeated. It seems pretty clear that Housman wants us to make a connection between home in the first stanza and home in the second.

    Housman wants some of those warm, happy feelings of home from the first stanza to comfort us as we are confronted with the sadness of the athlete's untimely death in the second stanza. A.E. was super-considerate that way.

    To set you at your threshold down,
    Townsman of a stiller town. (7-8)

    It's the athlete's new home all right. They set him down right at his front door—well actually the threshold here is probably more like an open grave or tomb. Still, Housman wants us thinking about this in the sense of returning home, which has a nice, comforting ring to it, right?

    And there's even more good (good?) news. Even though the athlete is dead and heading to his new "home," he isn't going to be alone. Isn't that great? He's going to be part of a town, a community. Sure, the town is a cemetery and all the residents are dead, but it's a nicer way to think about it than just sticking a cold, dead body in the ground next to a bunch of other dead bodies. Not nice.

  • Time

    The time you won your town the race
    We chaired you through the market-place; (1-2)

    "Time" is the second word in this poem. In the context of the line, it just lets us know that the speaker is recalling a time in the past. But thematically, by placing the word "time" at the very beginning of the poem, it starts us thinking about the idea of time and changes how we see the other references to time in the poem. How? Shmoop is glad you asked.

    The moment in time described in the poem's first two lines is how the speaker, and apparently the whole town, will remember the athlete. Always. It's a dramatic, heroic image—the athlete being carried through his hometown. The contrast of that initial moment of heroic drama and joy with the references to what awaited the athlete had he lived helps make the speaker's point more vivid: if the athlete had lived long enough to face the effects of time, he would not have been remembered in such a glorious light.

    Smart lad, to slip betimes away (9)

    Elegies usually mourn the loss of the deceased. This one does that, kind of. But in this elegy the speaker also praises the young athlete ("smart lad") for kicking-off sooner rather than later. ("Betimes" means early.) That way, the athlete can avoid the inevitable ravages of passing time. Way to go.

    Now you will not swell the rout
    Of lads that wore their honours out, (17-18)

    Here again, the speaker is pitching this whole untimely death thing as a real blessing in disguise. By dying young, the athlete won't have to suffer the inescapable humiliation that awaits most athletes who compete past their primes. By dying young, before time can do its dirty work, the athlete will never see his athletic prowess fade or join the ranks of those that "wore their honours out." Yay team?

  • Pride

    Smart lad, to slip betimes away
    From fields where glory does not stay, (9-10)

    These two lines sum up this poem's prideful argument. The speaker is basically declaring that the young athlete is better off dead than defeated. If you follow this logic, the athlete basically lives for glory. Living for glory? Prideful much?

    Eyes the shady night has shut
    Cannot see the record cut, (13-14)

    Here the speaker argues that a benefit of dying young is that the athlete never has to see someone break his records. What? Is this guy serious? Who could possibly think it's better to be dead than to see someone beat you? Oh yeah, someone who is super-super-prideful.

    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. (17-20)

    Thank goodness. Now that the athlete has died nice and young, he will never add his name to the ranks of those who have outlived their fame. What a relief. It seems like the speaker feels that to lose one's fame is a kind of death, "the name died before the man." Sounds like a serious case of pride to us.