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When I Was One and Twenty

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An Analysis on “When I was One-And-Twenty” by A.E Housman “When I was One-And-Twenty” by A.E. Housman, is a poem about one young man’s growth, from twenty-one to twenty two. He is given the advice, that the greatest gift a person can give to another is love. However at the age of twenty-one, money is a much better gift to give. Saving yourself heartache, and having a lack of money is not as hard to fix as having a broken heart. Housman shows this in his poem by using imagery in his words. A.E Housman’s gifts as a poet seem to be much like his gifts as a scholar: narrow, profound, isolated, brooding, and ferocious. It was the same with his poems, most of which seem to stem from an emotional wound in his youth which he could hardly bring himself to mention except through the obliquities of his apparently stark and simple verse.

Housman was not a rural writer; instead, he based a personal mythology (of country lads betrayed in love, drinking themselves into oblivion, committing suicide, being hanged for nameless crimes) on a rediscovered pastoral tradition (Thwaite). Mr. A.E Housman is easily our most surprising poet. His first surprise was The Shropshire Lad itself, one of the most astonishing volumes in a very astonishing literature. A time went on it seemed to us that he had said what he had to say in a clear, unfaltering voice, and then, having eased his heart, had passed on in silence (Priestley). Housman’s poems repeat again and again that love is fleeting, lovers fickle, youth decays into age, and that death is final.

The characteristics that Housman assigned to great poetry in his lecture “The Name and Nature of Poetry” are the characteristics of his own poetry; chiefly, that it strikes to the pit of the emotions and by-passes “thought” (Thwaite). Housman wrote his poems with his tongue in his cheek; they are a clever fake. The hundred-and-four short lyrics which Housman published during his life-time were given to the world in two installments, the second twenty-six years after the first. In spite of world-shattering events that intervened, the second shows no development upon the first either in artistry or outlook save that the later collection is more uniformly grave in tone and of more even workmanship, and is at the same time more introspective in themes and character. A Shropshire Lad, while it contains the most purely beautiful of all the lyrics.

Housman was one whom the transient beauty of this world embittered-not into cynicism, but into a torturing acuteness of response to beauty. What private blows he had sustained from fate we do not know, and it matters little should we never know (Watts). This poem speaks of advice and wisdom given to a young man by an older man, most probably his father, regarding affairs of the heart. The poet, now older, is thinking back to those words, and how he should have listened before. The poem with its slight aura of sadness hints that the poet may have become entangled with a lady who has “toyed” with his affections, or has seriously deceived him in some fashion. “When I was one-and-twenty/I heard a wise man say,” (Housman 1056).

These two lines are a good opening for a poem, because it gets the reader ready for what is to come, and sets the tone and the rhyme. “Give crowns and pounds and guineas / but not your heart away;” (Housman 1056). He is saying that a person ought to give money away instead of their heart. Money can be easily replaced; it’s easy to go back to work, and make more money. It’s possible to lose the heart, and for it to get broken, the pain is always very deep, and what is strange, it’s never easy to pin-point its location. Then, the advice of the wise man is that money should be given as opposed to your heart, as far as love is concerned. So basically what the “wise man” is saying in the first line of advice is that, a man can give away any amount of money he wants and always get it back, but he can never get his heart back.

The meaning of the man’s words is that it’s easy to give away your money, but never give away the heart at such an early age. In the second stanza, he says it increases the amount, which is saying to give pearls and rubies away, but to keep the fancy free. The next lines of the stanza says, “But I was one-and-twenty, no use to talk to me” (Housman 1056). It is clear through these two lines alone that he is now speaking from a later period of his life, and that he never took the old man’s advice. Lastly, the first four lines of the last stanza are quoting the old wise man for a third time. For a third time, he is being reminded not to give his heart away, and that it should never be given in vain. It then states that he would lose his heart by paying with “sighs a plenty, and sold for endless rue” (Housman 1056). The third stanza seems to be a more elaborate warning, stating that giving away the heart will cost a lot more than any money he could ever accumulate.

It also warns that if he gives away his heart on a whim, he will most likely be regretting it in the end. The last two lines say, “And I am two-and-twenty, and oh, ‘tis true, ‘tis true” (Housman 1056). The last two lines mean now he is older, and able to realize that the advice he was given when he was younger was true. He has begun to think about the words spoken to him, and how he should have listened all along. Now he is twenty-two, and it turns out that the advice he got turned out pretty good. He was given the advice, that the greatest gift a person can give to another is love. However at the age of twenty-one, money is a much better gift to give. When he ages, he comes to realize that money isn’t always the best gift to give. He finally comes to realize that the whole time he should have listened to the old man’s words. It turns out in the end that the wise man was right. Once the young man realized, he understood that he should have listened to him. Age brings wisdom in the end.

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