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Mon 28th
May 2018
The Housman Society
Appreciating the Life and Works of Alfred Edward Housman

To An Athlete Dying Young

A Shropshire Lad

     XIX      Q
To An Athlete Dying YoungC
VThe time you won your town the race
VWe chaired you through the market-place;
VMan and boy stood cheering by,
And home we brought you shoulder-high.
To-day, the road all runners come,5Q
Shoulder-high we bring you home,
And set you at your threshold down,
Townsman of a stiller town.
VSmart lad, to slip betimes away
VFrom fields where glory does not stay,10
VAnd early though the laurel grows
VIt withers quicker than the rose.
VEyes the shady night has shutQ
VCannot see the record cut,C
VAnd silence sounds no worse than cheers15
VAfter earth has stopped the ears:
VNow you will not swell the rout
VOf lads that wore their honours out,
VRunners whom renown outranQ
VAnd the name died before the man.20
VSo set, before the echoes fade,
VThe fleet foot on the sill of shade,
VAnd hold to the low lintel up
The still-defended challenge-cup.
VAnd round that early-laurelled head25
VWill flock to gaze the strengthless dead,
VAnd find unwithered on its curls
VThe garland briefer than a girl's.
Key: V: Textual Variation. C: Commentary. Q: Question. Glossary

ASL XVIII "To An Athlete Dying Young"

Top ▲ Glossary
Line  WordGlossary
11laurel1. A small evergreen tree that grows in southern Europe and has glossy aromatic leaves and dark purple or black berries.
2. The leaves of the laurel woven into a wreath and used as a mark of honor or victory in ancient times, for example, to crown the winners of athletic events
17rout1. A noisy and disorganized group of people

Top ▲ Commentary
Line Commentary
Date: Date: March / April 1895 (1st Draft), April/May 1895 (2nd Draft)
TitleCritical opinion concerning the inspiration of this poem is divided. AEH wrote in 1898 that Moses Jackson, "in his youth was something of an athlete, and won the Quarter-Mile Challenge Cup at the London athletics Club in 1885." He also affirmed, in the dedicatory poem of his edition of Manilius (Sodali Meo M. I. Iackson) that Jackson was his "greatest friend" who had "more influence on my life than anyone else" and that he was "largely responsible for my writing poetry". They met as undergraduates in Oxford (1877) and later shared accommodation in Oxford and London. In 1885, "probably after an altercation" (Burnett, Commentary to Last Poems XXIV: p392: The Poems of A E Housman), they decided to live apart, Jackson moving to India two years later. The general biographical opinion is that AEH had very strong, platonic feelings for Jackson, which were unreciprocated. However, Jackson did not die until 1923; this had led some critics to believe that AEH was inspired by a newspaper obituary of someone not personally known to Housman - as ASL XLIV, ('Shot? so quick, so clean and ending') was influenced by the suicide of a young military cadet. Burnett concludes his commentary, "MJJ [Jackson] need not have died young to inspire the poem, however, and remains the most obvious source." (Ibid, p333)
14"cut" ie the record is broken / beaten
MetreFour line stanzas of normally eight syllables (iambic quatrameter), rhymed as couplets.

Top ▲ Variations
Line Text Textual variation
1d1time] <day>
1d2your] <the>
2d1<They> We chaired you <in> \ through / the market-place
3d1Man and boy] <And while the crowd> \ < [?Where] market-folk
9d1Smart] Wise
9d1slip] steal
9d2Smart lad,] Wise lad, \ Well done, /
10d1glory does] victory will
10d2victory \ glory / will
11d2<And glory for the runner braids> And early though the laurel grows
12d2<A chaplet briefer than a maid's> It withers sooner \ lasts no <longer> better / than <the> \ a / rose
13d1Shut [?your eyes and keep] them shut Now the eye that night has shut
13D2d1<He> \ The man / whose eye the night has shut Eyes the shady \ cloudy / night has shut
13D2d2<Now the eye that> \ Eyes the cloudy / night has shut
13D2d3Eyes the night has filled with smoke
14d1Cannot see the] And never see your
14D2d1<Never sees his record cut> Never \ Will never / see the record cut
14D2d2Will never see the record cut
14D2d3<Never> \ Will never / see the record broke [ Cannot see the record cut ]
15D2d1sounds no worse than] <is the same as>
16D2d2After] <Now that>
16D2d1the] <his>
17D2d1<And> <n> Now you will \ <have> / \ shall / not joined \ <swelled> / \ swell / the throng No fear you now should join the throng
17D2d2Now you will not] No fear you now should \ <Now you'll never>
18D2d1wore their honours out] lived \ stayed / a <day> \ spell / too long
19D1Runners] Of runners
20D1And] \ <Or> /
20D1died] die<s>d
21D1So now with ribboned breast invade <So, now with laurel<s> undecayed> \ <before the laurels fade> / \ <unbeaten, unafraid> / , \ So set, before its echoes fade, /
22D1First in the race, \ Unbeaten yet, / the sill of shade, <Set foot upon> \ The fleet foot on / the sill of shade
23D1low] <dark>
25D1that early-laurelled] your early-laurelled \ that young and laurelled /
26D1flock to gaze] throng to gaze \ come and gaze /
27D1find unwithered on] yet unfaded round
28D1The] \ <Your> /
28D1garland] garland<s>

Top ▲ Questions
Line Question
5How does the poet develop the contrast between the last time that the athlete was carried home shoulder-high and when that happens again, "To-day"?
13Why do you think the poet changed the word "cloudy" from the drafts to "shady" in the final version?
13-14It is clear from the drafts that Housman experimented a great deal with these lines. Consider the alternatives suggested in the drafts:

a. Shut your eyes and keep them shut
And never see your record cut
b. Now the eye that night has shut
Never sees his record cut
c. He / The man whose eye the night has shut
Will never see the record cut
d. Eyes the night has filled with smoke
Will never see the record broke

What are the merits of each and how is the final line, "Eyes the shady night has shut," superior to the others?

17Why do you think the poet returned in the final version to the word "swell", which was replaced with "join" after the first draft? What different ideas does the word suggest?
17-18Once again, consider the possible alternatives to these lines, formed from the various drafts:

a. Now you have not joined the throng
Of those who lived a day too long
b. No fear you now should join the throng
Of those who stayed a spell / too long
c. Now you'll never join the throng
Of those who stayed a spell too long

What are the merits of each and how is the final line, "Now you will not swell the rout," superior to the others?

19The poet removes the repetition of the word "Of" at the beginning of the line and thereby shortens it by one syllable. What is the effect on the meaning and tone of this two-fold change?
Whole poemThis poem is one of a number that consider the untimely or early death of youth. What message do you think this particular poem carries?