I think I first came across this poem in high school. It was easy to read. Its meaning seemed clear. It stuck with me over the years. As the years passed I would think about it how true it reflected life itself.
I especially remembered it when I attended a wake of an older man. I learned for the first time about his glorious career in sports in high school. It did not seem to have any connection to the man I knew.
I must admit though that I always struggled with the meaning of the last line.
To an Athlete Dying Young
A. E. Housman
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.
Today, 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.
As to the last line I like the explanation provided by David.
“When the athlete has stepped across the sill separating life from death, when he is in the land of the dead, the other spirits — “the strengthless dead” (which is a concept as old as the ancient world) — will gather about the lad and will see the laurel wreath of victory still unwithered on the curly hair of his head. In life the laurel crown — meaning victory and fame — is all too brief, shorter even than the quickly-wilting garlands of flowers the village girls weave in spring and summer to wear in their hair.
If this were the only poem Housman had ever written, he would still be famous for it, which is rather paradoxical: the renown of the dusty professor of Latin has outlived the athletic field victories of all the golden boys who studied under him in England before the Second World War. But we sense his love of them in this poem. It is their memorial.
The poem calls to mind the epitaph to a youth attributed to Plato, from the Greek Anthology:
Before you shone as Morning Star among the living;
Now you shine as Evening Star among the dead.
ἀστὴρ πρὶν μὲν ἔλαμπες ἐνὶ ζωοῖσιν Ἑῷος·
νῦν δὲ θανὼν λάμπεις Ἕσπερος ἐν φθιμένοις.
It was written for a youth named Aster, meaning “Star.” The Morning Star was Eosphoros, the “Dawn-bringer”; the Evening Star Hesperos.”