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To An Athlete Dying Young

"To An Athlete Dying Young" is a poem (XIX) in AE Housman's A Shropshire Lad (1896). 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 glory.

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.

Text

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.

Today, 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 girl's.

References in Literature

  • The poem is read as a eulogy by Meryl Streep's character, Karen Blixen, in the 1986 Academy Award-winning film, Out of Africa.
  • Many of the poem's themes are explored in The Invention of Love, a play by Tom Stoppard in which Housman appears as a double character: a young man smitten with his handsome and athletic university roommate, Moses John Jackson; and an elderly scholar who has just died and is being ferried to the underworld.
  • This poem is also read in the novel Tangerine by Mr. Donnelly at a ceremony for the death of a young football player.
  • In The Simpsons episode "The Last Temptation of Krust", Krusty the Clown opens a press conference with an (uncredited) excerpt from this poem.
  • Sportscaster Jim McKay recited this poem at the closing of 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.
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