To an Athlete Dying Young
"To An Athlete Dying Young" is a poem in A.E. Housman's A Shropshire Lad (1896). It is characterized as a lyric poem and also a elegy. It is perhaps one of the most well-known poems pertaining to early death; in this case, that of a young man at the height of his physical power. The setting is the funeral of a champion athlete, a young runner.
Housman wrote the poem in 1896, perhaps inspired by the death of his close friend Adalbert Jackson in 1892. Published in the period between the two Boer Wars, the poem gained even more popularity during World War I, as many saw it as a poignant lament for the lost generation of so many bright, young men, cut down in their prime.
The time you won your town the race,
We chaired you through the marketplace;
Man and boy stood cheering by,
As 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 where 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 girls.
The poem has been described as a "thought-provoking poem" with "beautiful imagery and rhyme scheme" which "makes the reader think about life and its meaning."
References in popular culture
- An abridgment of the poem is read as a eulogy by Meryl Streep's character, Karen Blixen, in the 1985 Academy Award-winning film, Out of Africa.
- The 1972 Munich Olympics in honor of the Israeli Olympic athletes that were killed during those Olympics in an attempted rescue from terrorists at the Munich airport.
- Krusty the Clown quotes the poem as he announces his retirement from comedy in The Simpsons episode The Last Temptation of Krust
- The second stanza is quoted near the end of the book "Messenger" by Lois Lowry.
- Nabokov's Lolita contains an allusion to the last line of the poem. Describing Lolita, the narrator mentions "her bi-iliac garland still as brief as a lad’s".
- RedLetterMedia's critique of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull features a portion of the poem, suggesting the narrator's supposed retirement.