When I Was One-and-Twenty

A. E. Housman

‘When I Was One-and-Twenty’ by A. E. Housman is a relatable poem that explores how easy it is to make mistakes in one’s love life, even when one knows exactly what they should do.


A. E. Housman

Nationality: English

A.E. Housman is one of the most important poets of the 19th and 20th centuries.

He is best known for his simple style, and memorable and moving images that made his work popular during his lifetime.

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When I Was One-and-Twenty’ was published in the poet’s collection A Shropshire Lad in 1896. It has remained one of his popular. The poem is light-hearted and has the attributes of a moralistic story or a fable. It has a piece of advice at its core. Through the simple rhyme scheme, colloquial diction, and fairly simple language, the poet gets that moral across. But, it is up for debate whether it was meant ironically or not. 

When I Was One-and-Twenty by A. E. Housman


Summary of When I Was One-and-Twenty 

When I Was One-and-Twenty’ by A. E. Housman is a moralistic poem that tells of a young man’s mistakes in love, despite being given advice. 

In the first lines of this poem, the speaker describes how when he was 21 years old a wise man gave him some advice. He was told that he would have better luck in love if he gave all his money away first. And surprisingly the speaker did not take the Wiseman out his word and so he did not give away his possessions. But, as the poem concludes, the speaker says that now he’s 22 and understands not the man was right. 


Structure of When I Was One-and-Twenty

When I Was One-and-Twenty’ by A. E. Housman is a short two stanza poem. Each stanza is made up of eight lines, known as octets. The first octet follows a rhyme scheme of ABCBCDAD, with a couple examples of half-rhyme, and the second stanza follows the pattern ABCBADAD. In regards to meter, the poet made use of iambic trimeter. This means that each line contains three sets of two beats. The first of these is unstressed and the second is stressed. 


Literary Devices in When I Was One-and-Twenty

Housman makes use of several literary devices in ‘When I Was One-and-Twenty’. These include but are not limited to alliteration, enjambment, and repetition. The latter is sen through the use and reuse of the refrain “When I was one-and-twenty” in both stanzas. 

Alliteration occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same sound. For example, “fancy free” in line six of the first stanza and “heard him” and “heart” in lines two and three of the second stanza. Another important technique commonly used in poetry is enjambment. It occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. Enjambment forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. For example, the transition between lines one and two of both stanzas.


Analysis of When I Was One-and-Twenty

Stanza One 

When I 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.

In the first stanza of ‘When I was One-and-Twenty, the speaker begins by introducing the fable-like narrative that’s to follow. He describes how when he was one-and-twenty, or twenty-one years old, that he spoke with an older man. This man was much wiser than he and more experienced. Specifically, this man knew a lot about the world of love. The consistent rhyme scheme creates a simple, steady beat that emphasizes the moral of the story. It feels simple as if told from the perspective of a young person. This is an interesting feature of the poem considering that the poet wrote the poem at thirty. 

The wise man’s advice to the youth was that he should give away all of his money. Even better, the old man adds, the young man should give away his pearls and rubies. It is wiser to do this, the old man says, that it is to fall in love. But, because the young man was only twenty-one years old there was no way that he was going to be taking this advice. A reader should also consider how the use of alliteration and enjambment in these lines helps create a rhythm that’s continuously upbeat and even. 


Stanza Two 

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 second stanza has a very similar structure to the first. The first line is repeated and it’s entirety and the second line is similar in that the speaker is conveying the words of the wise man. While the youth was still twenty-one years old he heard the man say that when people give their hearts away out of their bosoms that they always lose something too. Love comes with a price to be paid. Now, the speaker knows that this is true. The repetition of the word “true” in the last line expresses his exasperation and exhaustion colloquially. He is becoming the wise man. 

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Emma Baldwin Poetry Expert
Emma graduated from East Carolina University with a BA in English, minor in Creative Writing, BFA in Fine Art, and BA in Art Histories. Literature is one of her greatest passions which she pursues through analyzing poetry on Poem Analysis.

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