Sentimentality in Poetry’s Depiction of Death
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Death is a topic that is conventionally associated with either grief or fear. The poem “To an Athlete Dying Young” by A.E. Housman, which mourns and elevates the death of a young athlete, and the poem “Dog’s Death” by John Updike, which professes grief over a dog’s death, are two poems that focus on the emotional aftermath of death. The comparison is between the death of a human being, and the death of a pet. Delving further into the context of the two poems may provide reasons to the differences in moods between the two depictions of death through poetry. “To an Athlete Dying Young” expresses less sentimentality than “Dog’s Death” because of the importance it gives to the glory of leaving at someone’s peak.
The two poems to be studied are similar because they are both contemplations of the death of someone beloved, or at least admired. In both poems, there are some flashbacks of the most memorable moments of the one who once lived.
Despite the similarities, the differences will ultimately prove that one poem is more sentimental than the other. “To an Athlete Dying Young” begins by introducing the reader to the young athlete’s glory in winning a race. This is the only memory about the athlete that is mentioned in the poem. The rest describes the narrator’s emotions during the aftermath. It proceeds to describe death as the “road all runners come”. (Housman) By this, the narrator expresses his view of death as inevitable; everyone will die anyway.
“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.” (Housman) The narrator believes that it is better for the young athlete to die while he is still at his zenith. He will be remembered for his success, because he has died when he was still young, undefeated and with a star that is still shining bright. The narrator feels that what has happened to the young athlete is better than the fates of “lads that wore their honours out.” (Housman) The author is referring to other young men who continue living, but have to endure subsequent letdowns.
In the second poem “Dog’s Death,” the reader is given the possible cause of death, and the sufferings that the pet must have endured before dying. Compared to the more matter-of-fact attitude of the “To an Athlete Dying Young” narrator, the narrator of “Dog’s Death” communicates more sadness in his mourning. He appears to invoke the same feeling of grief in the readers by vividly describing the dog’s wretched condition before its death. “As we teased her with play, blood was filling her skin. And her heart was learning to lie down forever.” (Updike) The narrator describes what is happening within his pet, putting into attention especially the heart, to represent his own strong emotions regarding the death.
“Back home, we found that in the night her frame, drawing near to dissolution, had endured the shame of diarrhoea and had dragged across the floor to a newspaper carelessly left there. Good dog”. (Updike) This is the instance that the author expresses the most sentimentality; he describes the pitiful last moments of the dog, while at the same time expressing affection for the beloved pet. On the other hand, the young athlete’s death is crowned by his success, which is still new during his passing.
It is what is most remembered. His death is given justification as the better option to dying old as a has-been. He retains the admiration of those who know him when he was still alive. “And round that early-laurelled head will flock to gaze the strengthless dead, and find unwithered on its curls, a garland briefer than a girl’s.” (Housman) The garland here refers to honors bestowed on the athlete. It is briefer than a girl’s because he has not been given the chance to achieve more because of his untimely death. However, the garland remains “unwithered” because of his death which has occurred before he has a chance to experience failures.
A dog’s death may be thought of to produce a less emotional affair as compared to the death of a person, but the dog’s owner in “Dog’s Death” proves the readers otherwise by his emotional narrative. He describes the sadness caused by the initial illness, and finally the death of the pet on their family. If the athlete has died at the pinnacle of his success, the dog’s final humiliation in death is described with mingling pity and affection.
“Dog’s Death” expresses more sentimentality than “To an Athlete Dying Young” with the strong emotions that it aims to rouse from its readers. The latter believes that death will protect the young athlete from future failures that may erase the glory attached to his name. It does not speak of the young man other than as an athlete, with the only memory that is significant as the time that the athlete has won the town’s race. The sufferings of the pet in “Dog’s Death” are illustrated in order to gain sympathy, and thus also prove that the poem is the more sentimental of the two.
Housman, A. E. To An Athlete Dying Young. 19 October 2007 <http://www.bartleby.com/103/32.html>.
Updike, John. Dog’s Death. 19 October 2007 <http://www.breakoutofthebox.com/goodog.htm>.