"To an Athlete Dying Young" by Housman - English Poem Critique
The elegy "To an Athlete Dying Young" is considered Housman’s most popular poem. It is from the collection A Shropshire Lad, and suggests a deeply metaphorical interpretation of death.Death is a theme that elicits deep and varied emotions from individuals across the globe, while poetry “enables any poet to mediate upon and emotionally and lyrically respond to death, whether the death of a stranger, a loved one, oneself, or just the fact of death itself” (National Endowment for the Humanities). Housman responds to the death of a young athlete through the procession of language.
The opening stanzas of Housman’s elegy suggest a rustic speech: “The time you won your town race/We chaired you through the market-place” (1-2). In these stanzas, the poet cheers a simple country young man winning a race. As the poem progresses, a reader witnesses the evolution of speech, which reflects the protagonist’s personal development. He is no longer an unsophisticated lad, but an Olympic victor, crowned with garlands. Although the evolution of Housman’s protagonist is a fascinating issue, it should not distract the reader’s attention from death and immortality, which seem to be the main topic of the poem. There can be offered two interpretations of the theme.
The first interpretation is that death spares no one. This idea is voiced by Martin who notes that the athlete is too victorious to die (249). In a short time, there is seen an amazing metamorphosis from a wholesome young man to “the strengthless dead” (Housman 22). Death deprives a young man of everything he enjoyed: “Eyes the shady night has shut/ Cannot see the record cut,/ And silence sounds no worse than cheers/ After earth has stopped the ears” (Housman 13-16). Although Martin’s point of view makes sense, the author of this paper considers it to be oversimplified. Suggesting that everyone is equal before death does not add anything new to understanding of this natural, still rather mysterious phenomenon.A more plausible interpretation of death in Housman’s poem is offered by Zabel. It is not the mere fact of death that is frightening. A much more important is the idea of what a man leaves after his death. In his review, Zabel notes that all people want their names to be eternal (685), and the greatest tragedy of death is that most appellatives are forgotten as soon as their owners die. At this point, Housman’s protagonist is a happy man.
A country lad, he managed to leave a trace in the hearts of people who knew him; and this trace is significant. Ample evidence of this idea is found in To an Athlete Dying Young. In his short life, the protagonist evolved from a physically strong young man wining the town race to an eternal Olympic hero. His immortality is sung in Housman’s ode, and his name has entered the history of poetry. For the reader, a young athlete is not only a …