Sunday Poetry: To an Athlete Dying Young, by AE Housman

To an Athlete Dying Young

The time you won your town the race
We chaired you through the market-place;
Man and boy stood cheering by,
And home we brought you shoulder-high.

To-day, the road all runners come,
Shoulder-high we bring you home,
And set you at your threshold down,
Townsman of a stiller town.

Smart lad, to slip betimes away
From fields were glory does not stay
And early though the laurel grows
It withers quicker than the rose.

Eyes the shady night has shut
Cannot see the record cut,
And silence sounds no worse than cheers
After earth has stopped the ears:

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.

So set, before its echoes fade,
The fleet foot on the sill of shade,
And hold to the low lintel up
The still-defended challenge-cup.

And round that early-laurelled head
Will flock to gaze the strengthless dead,
And find unwithered on its curls
The garland briefer than a girl’s.

– AE Housman

Housman was not a great poet. Housman was a competent compiler of couplets, but his poems are didactic, dry and obvious. While technically adequate, his poetry lacks the ambiguity and depth, and often the emotional honesty, to really sing out as great poetry. “To an Athlete Dying Young” is probably his best poem, and it has a certain resonance for those who have watched Meryl Streep (as Karen Blixen) use it to haltingly eulogize Robert Redford (as Dennis Finch-Hatton) in the movie version of “Out of Africa”.

The strength of the poem lies in the tension between its nursery-rhyme structure of iambic tetrameter couplets and the emotive bleakness of a young person’s death. Adding to its appeal is the fact that the rhyming couplets stick in the reader’s head like a death-praising jingle – this poem is the catchy “Delta Dawn” of morbid, suicidal teens.

Housman was the “gateway drug” to great poetry for me, though. His slim, self-published volume of poems, A Shropshire Lad, may have been the first book of poetry I bought for pleasure instead of as a required text. His poems are understandable, rhythmical, quotable and sometimes even funny. From the poem entitled “Terence, this is stupid stuff“, you get such barroom gems as “malt does more than Milton can / To justify God’s ways to man,” and “Ale, man, ale’s the stuff to drink / For fellows whom it hurts to think.”

As I’ve read and enjoyed more poetry, Housman remains a guilty pleasure. What he lacks in subtlety he makes up in refreshing directness. While too many of his poems in one sitting can leave one yearning for something with more emotional depth and lyrical variation than a greeting card, a few of his poems at a time recall the pleasures of well-worked, clear-meaning verse in a world of atonal opacity.

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