Sunday, October 17, 2010

"To An Athlete Dying Young" by A. E. Housman

This is a great poem. It's about a runner. It's message is quite cynical though. Read it and share your thoughts. There are a lot of interesting themes going on in the poem about mortality and glory.

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.

Well, there you have it. What is Housman saying about the nature of glory? Is it permanent or fleeting? Is it better to die young or old? Why?

Here is a very nice recitation of the poem.

If you remember, Meryl Streep's character, Karen, recited the poem in "Out of Africa" (1985). She says the poem at Denys' funeral near the end of the movie. Her recitation is quite moving. Here it is:

Hugh Kingsmill criticized Housman for the cynical nature of the poem. Kingsmill wrote a parody:

What, still alive at twenty-two,
A clean upstanding chap like you?
Why, if your throat is hard to slit,
Slit your girl's and swing for it!

Like enough you won't be glad
When they come to hang you, lad.
But bacon's not the only thing
Cured by hanging from a string.

When the blotting pad of night
Sucks the latest drops of light
Lads whose job is still to do
Shall whet their knives and think of you.

Housman's response is not without humor:

They say my verse is sad: no wonder;
Its narrow measure spans
Tears of eternity, and sorrow,
Not mine, but man's.

This is for all ill-treated fellows
Unborn and unbegot,
For them to read when they're in trouble
And I am not.

No comments:

Post a Comment