A. E. Housman's "When I was one-and-twenty"

Updated on May 17, 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

Introduction and Text of Poem, "When I was one-and-twenty"

A. E. Housman's lyric, "When I was one-and-twenty," consists of two rimed stanzas of eight lines each. The rime scheme is ABCBCDAD in the first stanza and ABCBADAD in the second stanza.

(Please note: The spelling, "rhyme," was introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson through an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")

This poem appears #XIII in Housman's collection titled A Shropshire Lad, along with "To an athlete dying young," which offers a view point regarding death. In Housman's "When I was one-and-twenty," the speaker at age twenty-two reports the truth of sage advice he received at age twenty-one about falling in love.

When I was one-and-twenty

WhenI was one-and-twenty
I heard a wise man say,
‘Give crowns and pounds and guineas
But not your heart away;
Give pearls away and rubies
But keep your fancy free.’
But I was one-and-twenty,
No use to talk to me.

When I was one-and-twenty
I heard him say again,
‘The heart out of the bosom
Was never given in vain;
’Tis paid with sighs a plenty
And sold for endless rue.’
And I am two-and-twenty,
And oh, ’tis true, ’tis true.

Reading of "When I was one-and-twenty"

Commentary

In Housman's "When I was one-and-twenty," the speaker at age twenty-two reports the truth of sage advice he received at age twenty-one about falling in love.

First Stanza: Give All but the Heart

WhenI was one-and-twenty
I heard a wise man say,
‘Give crowns and pounds and guineas
But not your heart away;
Give pearls away and rubies
But keep your fancy free.’
But I was one-and-twenty,
No use to talk to me.

The speaker, a young man only twenty-one years old, enters his reportage with a quotation that he says he heard spoken likely by a much older man; according to the speaker, he "heard a wise man say." The wise man's words were meant to give advice regarding the issue of falling in love. Because the older man is speaking to a young man (or perhaps a group of young men), he addresses an issue that would likely be quite relevant to young people of that age group.

The sage advises that the younger men should never "give [their] heart[s] away"—that is, they should guard against falling in love. He tells them it is fine to give away things such as money but that they must at all costs keep their hearts. The young speaker of the poem has either heard that advice directly or indirectly from the so-called "wise man." That same wise man also advised that giving gifts to a prospective paramour was fine as long as the giver kept his wits about him and was not tricked into losing his own good judgment.

The older, wiser man makes it clear to the those younger and less experienced that maintaining one's emotional and mental well being is of paramount importance. He hopes to make the younger ones understand that they must never allow another person to invade and possess their lives. The young speaker however also makes it known that he did not follow that sage advice. He was like most young people who are head-strong, believing they know best, not allowing older folks to influence them. This younger speaker simply disdains the older man's advice, taking his chances with the future.

Second Stanza: Sage Advice

When I was one-and-twenty
I heard him say again,
‘The heart out of the bosom
Was never given in vain;
’Tis paid with sighs a plenty
And sold for endless rue.’
And I am two-and-twenty,
And oh, ’tis true, ’tis true.

The young speaker reports further that the older speaker had advised that allowing oneself to fall in love would have consequences. The younger speaker is now musing on that advice. The speaker recalls that the sage had told him about the sorrow that would be experienced if the young man did not heed the advice of the older.

Now the speaker has aged a year and allowed himself to become entangled by giving away his heart. He has become a victim of lost love and now realizes that the advice he had been given was correct. By giving his heart away, the young speaker is now paying the price with pain, sorrow, as he continues to sigh and cry and muse on that sage advice that he now wishes he had followed.

Questions & Answers

  • In A.E. Housman's "When I Was One-and-Twenty," what was the wise man's first suggestion to the poet?

    The wise man suggests that the speaker may with impunity give away gemstones, but not give his heart away through amorous entanglements.

  • How does the speaker react to the wise man's words in A.E Houseman's "When I was One-and-Twenty"?

    He does not follow the older man's advice.

  • How do we know whether or not the young man followed the advice in "When I Was One-and-Twenty"?

    We know that he did not. If he had, he wouldn't be suffering at age twenty-two, as is revealed in the final paragraph of the article.

  • In A.E. Housman's, "When I Was One-and-Twenty," what does the wise man mean by those lines that the persona heard?

    The "wise" man warns against falling in love because he claims that it will cause sorrow. He tells his audience of likely young men to give away gifts of jewelry and other material possessions but not to give away their hearts, meaning "fall in love." He opines that giving away material possessions will cause the giver no pain, but rejection after a love affair will cause much pain. So the speaker advises the young men not to fall in love.

  • In A.E. Housman's "When I Was One-and-Twenty," what did the wise man suggest to the speaker?

    The wise man suggests that the speaker will suffer if he gives away his affection and entangles himself with love affairs. The wise man tells the young man to give away only materials possessions but not his own heart and soul.

© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes

Comments

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  • Maya Shedd Temple profile imageAUTHOR

    Linda Sue Grimes 

    21 months ago from U.S.A.

    Thank you, Shafqat. I appreciate the kind words. Have a blessed day!

  • profile image

    Review Wizard 

    21 months ago

    Engaging, thoroughly explanatory, you have a terrific scholarship I must say.

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