Friday, November 21, 2008

Friday Poetry: A.E. Housman

For some stupid kneejerk liberal reason, I always feel self-conscious posting "classic" poetry—not classical, but the sort you spent time with in school. Not that the vast majority of poems I've posted here, "classic" or otherwise, were not poems or poets I encountered before college, but I'm self-conscious nonetheless. So I want to tell a story about this particular poem.

I'm currently working as a substitute teacher at my alma mater, the school I attended from kindergarten through twelfth grade. I had many wonderful teachers there, one of whom, Mr. M, I had for sixth-grade Ancient History and twelfth-grade American Constitutional Law. He has an amazing, amazing mind, was a very shy man outside of the classroom and a very bold, fast, sharp speaker in it. He had a stroke recently, and I just saw him for the first time since. He's still teaching, apparently as well as he used to, but he can barely talk anymore. His distinctive speech patterns were a huge part of my memory of him, so the encounter was hard for me, though I'm happy he's still around and still working. One of my sharpest memories is of him reading this poem when I was in sixth grade—beginning to read with barely an introduction, as was his wont. The memory is of him looking sharply up at all of us when he read the words "Smart lad," waiting for our surprise.

So, I love this poem.

A.E. Housman
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 the 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 that 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.


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