“To an Athlete, Dying Young” is an elegy by A.E. Housman. The main theme of the poem is the relief that death can bring to a man who is finally freed from all the hardships of life (Sillars 43). It also touches upon the idea that the one who achieved a lot should die at the peak of his glory as it is much better to stay young and strong in people’s memories than to become old, weak, and forgotten. Death is perceived as a victory over neglect and oblivion.
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The poem is written in seven quatrains. The meter is rhymed iambic tetrameter, which means that the line consists of eight syllables with the stress on the even ones. The first line of each quatrain is rhymed with the third, the second one – with the fourth. The poet adheres to the use of extended metaphors (withering of laurel and a rose is compared to the withering of a boy; the race is paralleled with the course of human life quickly passing by).
He also uses multiple comparisons (oblivion follows glory as the night follows the day and the funeral cortege follows the parade). Syntactic parallelism in the form of chiasmus (“And home we brought you shoulder-high” – “Shoulder high we bring you home”) is aimed to demonstrate how after reaching its climax, human life can go reverse.
The author presents life as a disappointment that is unavoidable unless a person dies in his/her blossom. The interesting point is that death is not shown as an inevitable curse but as a relief. The poet claims that it is much more preferable than oblivion, which means dying when you are still alive.
The even meter of the poem and its rhymes add to the pensive mood created by the complexity of the theme. Thus, the means are chosen quite successfully to complement and enhance the idea.
Sillars, Stuart. Structure and Dissolution in English Writing, 1910–1920. New York, New York: Springer, 2016.