Good Poem

In the Intro to Lit class yesterday we took a look at a poem I hadn’t read since I was in high school hmm hm years ago. I had forgotten how well written it really is and I think it was a great choice for introducing people to poetry. It seems that this is the most dreaded genre formany of my classmates, who, sadly, have had little exposure to it before now.

It is a poem by A.E. Housman “a man who turned out to be not only the great English classical scholar of his time but also one of the few real and great scholars anywhere at any time” (Brink). Housman was educated at Oxford but failed his final examination due to emotional stress and despair at an unrequieted love. Despite this, Housman continued to study latin texts in the British Museum reading room after his work as a patent clerk. Housman developed “a consummate gift for correcting errors in them, owing to his mastery of the language and his feeling for the way poets choose their words” (Famous Poets). Housman wrote many journal articles and they eventually led to his appointment in 1892 as professor of Latin at University College, London. In 1911 he became Kennedy Professor of Latin at Cambridge University and a fellow of Trinity College. He taught there almost to his death in 1936.

To an Athlete Dying Young talks about a young runner dying at the height of his success, undefeated in the town and how he will forever retain his glory because he will always be remembered as a winner and no-one will ever challenge him.

I just love these two lines most particularly:

“To set, before its echoes fade,
The fleet foot on the sill of shade”

Here is the poem. I hope you enjoy it!

To an Athlete Dying Young

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.

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 girl’s.


Charles Oscar Brink, English Classical Scholarship: Historical reflections on Bentley, Porson and Housman, James Clarke & Co, Oxford, Oxford University Press, New York, 1986 p.149

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