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Housman's "To an Athlete Dying Young" and Yogananda's "The Dying Youth's Divine Reply"

Updated on February 4, 2018
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

A. E. Housman

Source

Paramahansa Yogananda

Source

Introduction and Text of Housman's "To an Athlete Dying Young"

Housman's "To an Athlete Dying Young" has been widely anthologized through the decades since its appearance. It offers a different way of viewing and accepting death. What might otherwise be deemed a tragic occurrence, the speaker in this poem turns that thought on its head, making it seem that the young athlete is better off to have died young.

This notion contrasts not only with the traditional and more ordinarily experienced view of death, but it also contrasts greatly with the view expressed in Paramahansa Yogananda's "The Dying Youth's Divine Reply."

A. E. Housman's "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.

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.

Reading of Housman's "To an Athlete Dying Young"

Commentary on Housman's "To an Athlete Dying Young"

In A. E. Housman’s poem " To an Athlete Dying Young," the speaker praises the young deceased athlete for dying before he had to face the humiliation of seeing his record broken. The young athlete had won a race for his town, and the proud townspeople had carried him on their shoulders through the thoroughfare celebrating his victory.

The poem’s setting is the funeral procession wherein they again carry the athlete on their shoulders but this time in a coffin. The speaker muses about the loss of the young person but ultimately finds comfort in thinking that it is good that the young man died before he could see someone else break his record.

Death Not Usually Welcome

Of course, everyone has a different perspective on the desirability of death, but generally no one welcomes it. And while Housman’s speaker would not have advised the young athlete to commit suicide to achieve the outcome that he did, the speaker, nonetheless, decides that death, in the case, is not an unwelcome event.

In the Housman poem, we do not know what the young athlete’s thoughts were. We do not even know how he died. Was it by accident? Or an illness? We are never told, because the speaker does not deem that the important focus. The point is the young man died, and the speaker wishes to suggest a unique way for his mourners to solace themselves.

Introduction to, Paraphrase of, and Excerpt from Paramahansa Yogananda's "The Dying Youth’s Divine Reply"

Introduction to Paramahansa Yogananda's "The Dying Youth’s Divine Reply"

Paramahansa Yogananda's "The Dying Youth's Divine Reply" appears in his collection of spiritually inspired poetry, Songs of the Soul. While reading the poem itself is best, copyright concerns prevent placing the entire poem on the site.

The following is a useful prose rendering or paraphrase of the poem that can help the reader gain insight into the poem as it aids in comprehending the commentary about the great Guru's poem, "The Dying Youth’s Divine Reply."

Paraphrase of "The Dying Youth’s Divine Reply"

A happy, charming young lay on his death bed in his family's hut, but sickness could not tarnish his smiles. Doctors gave him only one day to live.

His family was inconsolable. Yet the young man remained as happy and charming as ever. He narrated his joy and the reasons for it to his family. Fears had left his soul.

He had prepared his soul to be released into the Infinite. He had strengthened his will and dispensed with the forces that would cause him doubt and pain. He had entered a kingdom of Peace.

He was, in fact, joyous to be leaving this "mortal prison," where the body is apt to be assaulted in all uncertain and obnoxious ways. He looked upon Death as a kind of savior who would help liberate him from this dirt ball of a planet.

He begged his dear family to rejoice with him that he would transcending this earth into freedom. Again, he catalogued all the calamities that those living with a physical encasement might meet.

He asserted vehemently that he would be free and would feel sad for those whom he would leave behind in the "mortal prison." They are ones for whom tears are needed not he who would be traveling to the astral world of beauty and delight, where no fire can burn, no water drown, no gas choke.

He continues to rejoice that he is going to the Infinite, where music is sweet, where he will be singing always. He is rejoicing that now it is less than a day that he must remain bound in this troublesome physical body. He is bound to bliss in a world far superior to this kingdom of death and destruction.

The youth then gently chastises his loving family again, reminding them that he will be able to prepare a place for them when they finally have to move from the finite to the Infinite. The youth tries to help his loved ones understand that he knows he is only going to be with his "Only Beloved," and he knows that same Beloved belongs to his beloved family.

Excerpt from "The Dying Youth’s Divine Reply"

In his laughter he had often heard
The echo of God's merriment.
This laughing youth of many charms
Lay dying in a hamlet,
They the bias of illness was unable to wither his smiles.
The doleful doctors can and said, "But da day,
But a day we give you to life."
The dear ones of his family cried aloud:
"Leave us not, poor you of your hearts!
Ou souls are bursting with pity for thee, for they plight."

Commentary on Paramahansa Yogananda’s "The Dying Youth’s Divine Reply"

The dying youth in the Yogananda poem has the special understanding and ability to know that his dying simply means that his soul will inhabit a beautiful astral world, and therefore, he admonishes his mourners not to mourn.

Divine Understanding

In the opening stanza, readers learn that the doctors have said the young man has but one day to live. But the readers are also made aware that the young man has been close to God: "In his laughter he had often heard / The echo of God’s merriment."

The young man's family grieves at such news and begs the young man not to leave them. But the young man, who has seen visions of the astral world, is not disheartened by the news of his coming demise, quite the contrary.

The youth answers, "The smiles of the youth grew /brighter, / And he joyously spoke, in a voice that sang: / ‘Ah, just a day; yea, but a day / Between me and my long-lost Beloved’." His happiness of entering into a level of being that he deems will draw him closer to God motivates his joyous voice to sing his delight.

The poem continues for six more stanzas, longest poem in Songs of the Soul. The youth continues to paint scenes of his expectations after his soul has left its body: "My light has plunged into His Light / And is playing over the splendors of eternity. / The shadows of fanciful fears have slipped away / And His Light has spread over the dark nooks of my soul."

Finally, the dying youth is the one who comforts his mourners: "You weep for me dark tears, / Crying for your loss in me; / But I weep for you joyous tears." Different purposes, different perceptions of death.

Contrasting Views

The two poems display fascinating differences between mortal perceptions of death. The Housman poem is clever but ultimately a rationalization and not a very convincing one. Of course, the reader did not hear from the dying athlete, but might guess that he would have preferred to be able to experience knowing that he record was broken.

The dying youth in the Yogananda poem, however, has no qualms about dying, because he has a strong faith that he is going to be closer to God. He has intuited that his soul lives on, and therefore, he has no fears about what God will have in store for him after leaving the "prison" of his physical body.

In Paramahansa Yogananda’s "The Dying Youth’s Divine Reply," the reader encounters two similarities with the Housman poem: both dying persons are young, and both poems portray ways of reconciling death.

Two minor differences between the poems are that in the Housman poem, the youth is already dead; in Yogananda’s poem, the speaker has not yet died. In the Housman poem, the speaker is a mourner, who does the reconciling, while in Yogananda’s poem, the dying youth is the speaker, who does the reconciling.

The speaker in Housman’s poem remains focused on the earthly plane. He does not portray the world into which the youth has entered; he does not speculate about that world, except in the first two lines of the last stanza when he says, "And round that early-laurelled head / Will flock to gaze the strengthless dead."

The speaker suggests that the dead are weak, and yet they will gaze on the youth’s "early-laurelled head" "And find unwithered on its curls / The garland briefer than a girl's." So there is not much here to look forward to, and the only reconciliation is the fact that his victorious record will not be broken while he is alive.

Unlike this poor youth, the dying youth in the Yogananda poem has the special understanding and ability to know that his dying simply means that his soul will inhabit a beautiful astral world, and therefore, he admonishes his mourners not to mourn.

Life Sketch and Publications of Paramahansa Yogananda

The great guru/poet Paramahansa Yogananda was born on January 5, 1893, in Gorakhpur, India. His name at birth was Mukunda Lal Ghosh. Always a spiritually advanced child, at age 17, he met his guru, Swami Sri Yukteswar, under whose guidance he flourished and became the spiritual giant and sacred engine that leads souls back to their eternal abode in the arms of the Divine Creator.

Paramahansa Yogananda came to the United States in 1920 to speak in Boston at the International Congress of Religious Liberals. His speech was so well received that he quickly gathered a following. By 1925, his organization, Self-Realization Fellowship (SRF), was well established with the purpose of disseminating and maintaining the purity of his teachings of yoga. He has come to be known as the “Father of Yoga in the West.”

The following is an excerpt from the introduction to Paramahansa Yogananda’s biography on the Self-Realization Fellowship Web site:

In the hundred years since the birth of Paramahansa Yogananda, this beloved world teacher has come to be recognized as one of the greatest emissaries to the West of India’s ancient wisdom. His life and teachings continue to be a source of light and inspiration to people of all races, cultures and creeds.

Publications of Paramahansa Yogananda

Paramahansa Yogananda's in-depth work, Autobiography of a Yogi, has become a spiritual classic worldwide. Many devotees have been drawn to the teachings of this yogi through that autobiography, and many of their stories about how they came to find that work include some of the most inspiring "miracles" of modern American culture.

Such world-renowned figures as Dennis Weaver, Steve Jobs, George Harrison, and Elvis Presley were influenced by the Autobiography of a Yogi and the teachings of the great guru. Weaver even became a lay minister and spoke often at many of the SRF temples in California.

In addition to the autobiography, the great guru has published many collections of his talks, in both written and oral forms. His audio collector's series of ten of his informal talks includes the following titles:

1. Beholding the One in All
2. Awake in the Cosmic Dream
3. Be a Smile Millionaire
4. The Great Light of God
5. To Make Heaven on Earth
6. One Life Versus Reincarnation
7. Removing All Sorrow and Suffering
8. In the Glory of the Spirit
9. Follow the Path of Christ, Krishna, and the Masters
10. Self-Realization: The Inner and the Outer Path

These inspirational talks reveal much information about the great guru that appeals to his devoted followers. Just listening to a God-realized voice offers an uplifting spiritual experience.

The Poetry of Paramahansa Yogananda

For my commentaries on the poems of the great guru, I rely on his marvelous collection titled, Songs of the Soul, the version published in 1983 with its most current printing 2014. Two additional collections of his poems are extant, Whispers From Eternity and Metaphysical Meditations.

Because the "poems" of this great guru function on levels that ordinary poems do not, they are often used in devotional services held by groups of devotees of the SRF teachings throughout the world in the Readings Services as well as their Special Commemorative Services.

Paramahansa Yogananda's poems are more akin to prayers than to the poetry of ordinary poets, whose subject matter often dramatizes only human emotion in its relationship with creation and other human beings, instead of with the Creator; the great guru's poems always invoke the Creator's presence whether directly or indirectly.

Other Publications

The great guru's organization, SRF, also continues to publish collections of his works. Many of his talks have appeared in the series of essays that include Man's Eternal Quest, The Divine Romance, and Journey to Self-realization.

Corrective Translations

The guru has also bestowed on the literary world three important translations of extant perennial works that have been grossly misunderstood in some cases for centuries. His new translations along with his explanatory commentaries are correcting that misunderstanding.

In Wine of the Mystic: The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam — A Spiritual Interpretation, he shows how that poet's God-realized effusions put on display a man in love with his Creator and not the wine sopped Epicurean that has been misapplied to the work.

In the guru's in-depth translation and commentaries on the ancient Bhagavad Gita, titled God Talks With Arjuna: The Bhagavad Gita — A New Translation and Commentary, the great spiritual leader offers not only the poetic translation of the work but also the relevance for humankind of the psychological and spiritual instruction offered in the ancient poem.

Most importantly for Western culture, Paramahansa Yogananda has offered a full explanation of the phenomenon known as the "Second Coming." Titled The Second Coming of Christ: The Resurrection of the Christ Within You — A revelatory commentary on the original teachings of Jesus, the work explains the true meaning of many of Jesus' words long misunderstood and mischaracterized, such as "The Kingdom of God is within you" and "I and my Father are one."

The Lessons

Of all the publications offered by SRF and the great guru, it is the Lessons that remain most vital. One could dispense with all of the other books, audio tapes, poetry, and other commentaries if one possesses those lessons.

The Lessons begin by offering physical exercises that prepare the physical encasement to sit quietly and still while performing the more advanced exercises that lead to Kriya Yoga practice.

The Lessons contains six steps that can be completed in three years, but each student is free to progress at his/her own pace. The Lessons include instruction in the following techniques: 1. Energization Exercises. 2. Hong-Sau Technique of Concentration, and 3. Aum Technique of Meditation.

After completing the first two steps, the devotee may apply for the Kriya Yoga technique.

Kriya Yoga Initiations

The Kriya Yoga technique features four initiations for a total of twenty lessons. The First Initiation, featuring lessons K1-9, includes the technique of Kriya proper, on which all of the other initiations are based. The Second Initiation contains four lessons, K10-14, and the Third and Fourth include the remaining lessons K15-20.

All of the Lessons, including the Kriya Yoga Initiations, include many explanations based of science, as well as on the life experience of Paramahansa Yogananda. These marvelous works are presented in such way to hold the student-devotees' interest with little stories, poems, affirmations, and prayers that enhance the purpose of each lesson.

Complete Works

In addition to all of the works mentioned above, Paramahansa Yogananda has published many others, including his Cosmic Chants, which offers musical notations as well as the lyric for each chant.

An annotated list of the works of the great guru is offered on the Self-Realization Fellowship Web site under the title, "The Complete Works of Paramahansa Yogananda."

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

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