Today I want to talk again about a poem by one of my favorite writers, Alfred Edward Housman. He was, you may recall, a classicist — a professor of Greek and particularly of Latin, and in his poems we often sense the depth that background gives as he mixes the atmosphere of the English town or village with the lingering fragrance of the classic Greco-Roman world of antiquity. In this poem we shall see also that he uses a mixture of objectivity and metaphor, that is, he speaks of things as they are while also speaking of things or events in order to mean something else.
Housman was, as I have said before, a poet very much aware of impermanence, and so in that respect his poems are like hokku, which always has as its background the transience of life, the impermanence of all things.
One of his finest poems is this – To an Athlete Dying Young.
I will discuss it stanza by stanza:
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.
Housman is speaking to the athlete, recalling a past day on which the lad won a foot race. He represented his town and thereby earned it and himself respect, so he was chaired through the market place. That means the jubilant and proud people sat him on a chair or bench, and lifted him to their shoulders, carrying him through the market place — the real center and heart of the town — to honor him. And as he was carried shoulder-high in triumph through the streets, the boys and the men cheered, and he was brought in that way to the door — the threshold — of his own home.
Now watch how Housman uses this past incident, bringing it into the present, and using the past realistically and the present metaphorically:
Today, the road all runners come,
Shoulder-high we bring you home,
And set you at your threshold down,
Townsman of a stiller town.
Now we have come from remembrance of things past to the present. The athlete — still a lad — has died early, while still a youth. We are not told why he died, but we know it is just a hard fact. So today, on the road all runners come, he is again brought home shoulder-high. Here Housman uses metaphor. By runners, he is speaking of the “race of life,” the course of life from birth to death. So all who are alive are runners in this sense. An old expression used by people near death was, “My race is almost run.” But this lad has ended his race; he has died. And now on the road all runners come — the road to the graveyard — he is once more brought home shoulder-high as his coffin is carried on the shoulders of the mourners. They set him down at his new threshold — the grave — and he makes the transition from being their townsman in life to being a townsman of a “stiller town.” By that is meant the silence of the cemetery and of death. Henceforth he will be one of the quiet community of the dead.
Housman now does something we find in other poems of his, which is to speak paradoxically. He does this through the contrast of telling the athlete that in spite of the sad situation, the boy was smart to die:
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.
You were smart, he says, to slip away from life “betimes” — meaning “early” here — because the fields of life — by which he means first the athletic fields and by extension the world itself — are places where glory does not stay. Fame and the praise of the public do not last. And, he says, though the laurel grows early, it withers more quickly than the rose. We must not take this literally. What Housman means is that though one may be crowned with laurel at an early age — the branches of the laurel were traditionally used to crown a victorious athlete in the Greco-Roman world — the laurel (by which he means fame) nonetheless fades more quickly than a real rose drops its petals. Housman is emphasizing how brief and transient fame and praise are.
Eyes the shady night has shut
Cannot see the record cut,
And silence sounds no worse than cheers
After earth has stopped the ears.
Eyes shut by the “shady night” — by death, that is, cannot see the athletic record one has set broken; and to one whose ears are stopped by earth — plugged with the earth of the grave — there is no distinction between cheers and silence.
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.
What excellent lines those are! Now, he tells the athlete, you will not swell (increase) the rout (rabble-like crowd) of those who lived beyond the time of their youthful athletic glory. The athlete, by dying young, will not be one of those men whom renown outran. ”Whom renown outran” means that their glory and praise reached its end long before the man reached his own end of life.
We all know what he means by this. There are countless young people who seemingly reach their peak in high school or college — the quarterbacks and the gymnasts and the runners — and then the rest of their lives is a letdown to them; they become menial workers in jobs they hate, and some even become alcoholics or drug addicts, because they cannot get used to the great contrast between their lives in the “glory days” of high school and their dull present lives. So they are “Runners whom renown outran / And the name died before the man.” They are now nobodies; people have forgotten them. The name — that is the fame of the person — has died long before the man himself has died. This last line — “The name died before the man” – is exquisite, one of those lines that can be applied to countless individuals who, once famous and well-known, have been forgotten. The common, cruel expression used of such people is “He peaked too early.” But Housman tells his athlete that he has avoided this sad fate by dying early, when he was still famous and praised and loved by his townsmen.
Because of all this, Housman begins his final words to the departed lad:
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.
To the dear boy who is making the transition from the world of the living to the silent world of the dead, Housman says encouragingly that he should let his swift feet now step upon and cross the “sill of shade” — the border that marks off the living from the dead just as a doorsill separates the outside world from the inside world of the home. And, he adds, do it before the echoes fade — before the shouts of those who cheered you and praised you in life have died away in forgetfulness of you. And here again Housman speaks metaphorically, not literally: He tells the lad to hold the cup he won — the award given him for winning the race — up to the low lintel. By that Housman is again using his past-present analogy — his comparison of the door of the house to the edge of the grave. The lintel of a door is the beam across the top. The lintel of a grave is the lid of the coffin. By this he means that the athlete may die without ever losing his glory; he can hold up his metaphorical award cup in the grave forever, and never lose it as would likely have happened in life when beaten by another, or beaten by the changes of time and the forgetfulness of others.
In this following last stanza Housman so closely mixes the sentiments of the ancient world with British town and village life that the two cannot be separated, and really that is the nature of the whole poem:
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.
When the athlete has stepped across the sill separating life from death, when he is in the land of the dead, the other spirits — “the strengthless dead” (which is a concept as old as the ancient world) — will gather about the lad and will see the laurel wreath of victory still unwithered on the curly hair of his head. In life the laurel crown — meaning victory and fame — is all too brief, shorter even than the quickly-wilting garlands of flowers the village girls weave in spring and summer to wear in their hair.
If this were the only poem Housman had ever written, he would still be famous for it, which is rather paradoxical: the renown of the dusty professor of Latin has outlived the athletic field victories of all the golden boys who studied under him in England before the Second World War. But we sense his love of them in this poem. It is their memorial.
The poem calls to mind the epitaph to a youth attributed to Plato, from the Greek Anthology:
Before you shone as Morning Star among the living;
Now you shine as Evening Star among the dead.
ἀστὴρ πρὶν μὲν ἔλαμπες ἐνὶ ζωοῖσιν Ἑῷος·
νῦν δὲ θανὼν λάμπεις Ἕσπερος ἐν φθιμένοις.
It was written for a youth named Aster, meaning “Star.” The Morning Star was Eosphoros, the “Dawn-bringer”; the Evening Star Hesperos.