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 the 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.
Alfred Edward Housman (1859–1936) was an English poet and renowned Latin scholar who spent his last decades as Kennedy Professor of Latin at Cambridge and a fellow of Trinity College. “To an Athlete Dying Young” is from his first and most famous collection, A Shropshire Lad, which was published in 1896 and became increasingly popular during his lifetime. Because it is perfectly accessible, thoroughly engaging, and exquisitely made, Housman’s poetry remains highly popular today. Perhaps because he was homosexual at a time when such an orientation was forbidden, and because of a bitterly disappointing early relationship in which his affections were rejected, Housman opted for a somewhat reclusive life.