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.
This stanza might sound a little like a botany exam, but fear not—Shmoop won't let you get lost in the weeds.
The stanza begins with the speaker praising the athlete for bowing out early, calling him a "smart lad" for slipping away sooner rather than later. Why you ask? Good question. Lines 10-12 hold the answer.
The speaker tries to look on the bright side of the athlete's early demise by considering the fact that, "glory does not stay." The athlete would not have won every race. Sooner or later he would have disappointed the crowd. As Shmoop's high school baseball coach used to say, "Today's peacock is tomorrow's feather duster."
The speaker goes on to try to further argue his point, and he turns to the garden for evidence. What?
Well, it does make a kind of sense. Laurel is an evergreen plant that you might not know the name of but you've probably seen more than once. It has been used as a symbol of victory since way, way back in antiquity. Apollo is usually depicted sporting a laurel wreath on his head. It's a good look.
But you didn't have to be a god to get your laurel on. It was often formed into a crown or a wreath to celebrate the victorious athlete or warrior.
So the speaker is saying that the victory came early in the athlete's life, "early though the laurel grows."
But the laurel, the celebration of the athlete's victory, will fade away ("wither") quickly. How quickly you ask? Well, according to our speaker, "quicker than the rose."
We are all familiar with the red rose as a symbol of love and affection, but roses also commonly symbolize respect for the dead.
Basically, the speaker is suggesting that the love and admiration the crowd felt for the victorious athlete in life would have been fleeting, fading as soon as he lost a race. The respect and love the crowd has for the athlete in death will last much longer (and perhaps even be eternal).