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

AE Housman’s “When I Was One-and-Twenty” is a relatable poem that explores how easy it is to make mistakes in your love life, even when you know exactly what to do.

When I Was Twenty-One Summary and Analysis

par AE Housman

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When I Was Twenty-One Summary and Analysis

par AE Housman

  • Summary
  • Themes
  • Line-by-line explanation and analysis
  • Poetic devices
  • Vocabulary and references
  • Form, meter and rhyme scheme
  • Speaker
  • Setting
  • The context
  • Resources
  • Summary
  • Themes
  • Line by line explanations
  • Poetic devices
  • Vocabulary and references
  • Form, meter and rhyme scheme
  • Speaker
  • Setting
  • The context
  • Resources

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“When I Was One-and-Twenty” is a poem by British writer AE Housman, published in his hugely popular first collection A Shropshire Lad (1896). This is a short poem consisting of two stanzas, in which the young speaker talks about the experience of falling in love and falling in love. At 21, the speaker was told by a wise man that it was better to give all your money than your heart. The speaker, of course, did not listen, and at the ripe old age of 22 he learned the painful truth of the sage’s words.

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The full text of “When I Was Twenty-One”

1Quand j’avais vingt et un ans

2 J’ai entendu un sage dire :

3 “Donnez des couronnes et des livres et des guinées

4 Mais pas votre cœur loin;

5Donnez des perles et des rubis

6 Mais gardez libre cours à votre fantaisie.

7Mais j’avais vingt et un ans,

8 Inutile de me parler.

9Quand j’avais vingt et un ans

10 Je l’ai entendu dire encore :

11« Le cœur sorti du sein

12 N’a jamais été donné en vain;

13’Tis payé avec des soupirs beaucoup

14 Et vendu pour une rue sans fin.

15Et j’ai vingt-deux ans,

16 Et oh, c’est vrai, c’est vrai.

Le texte intégral de “Quand j’avais vingt et un ans”

1Quand j’avais vingt et un ans

2 J’ai entendu un sage dire :

3 “Donnez des couronnes et des livres et des guinées

4 Mais pas votre cœur loin;

5Donnez des perles et des rubis

6 Mais gardez libre cours à votre fantaisie.

7Mais j’avais vingt et un ans,

8 Inutile de me parler.

9Quand j’avais vingt et un ans

10 Je l’ai entendu dire encore :

11« Le cœur sorti du sein

12 N’a jamais été donné en vain;

13’Tis payé avec des soupirs beaucoup

14 Et vendu pour une rue sans fin.

15Et j’ai vingt-deux ans,

16 Et oh, c’est vrai, c’est vrai.

  • Résumé de “Quand j’avais vingt et un ans”
    • When I was 21, a wise man gave me some advice. He said it would be better to give all my money away before I even think about giving someone my heart. It would even be better to lose precious jewels, he continued, than to give someone my affections. Of course, I was only 21 at the time—so there was no point saying this stuff to me.

      When I was 21, the wise man doubled down on his advice. He told me that when people give their heart away they always lose something too—love comes with a price of plentiful sighs and endless misery. And now that I’m 22, I see how right he was!

  • “When I Was One-and-Twenty” Themes
    • Theme Juventud, Ingenuity and experience

      Youth, Naivety, and Experience

      “When I Was One-and-Twenty” is a poem that focuses on the naivety of youth, looking at the way that young people usually fail to listen to the advice of those that are older and, perhaps, wiser. The poem implies that this is simply the way life works—and that the young have to make mistakes for themselves in order to learn.

      The poem develops this idea by putting the wise man’s advice front and center in both stanzas. The speaker can’t, then, say that they weren’t warned about the perils of falling in and out of love. In the first stanza, the wise man tells the speaker to give away anything but the heart, while the second stanza discusses the consequences of heartbreak. But the speaker admits that there was “no use talk to me” at the age of “one-and-twenty.” That is, the speaker’s youthfulness was always going to get in the away of the man’s supposedly sage advice.

      Though the speaker doesn’t go into detail, it’s clear enough from the last two lines that the speaker did have their heart broken soon after the wise man offered his advice. The almost over-the-top world-weariness of the repeated “’tis true” at the end of the poem is the speaker’s way of admitting to youthful naivety. But it also seems a little over dramatic, maybe suggesting that the speaker is still in that naive stage of life. Indeed, maybe naivety is just a fact of life more generally—was it all that wise of the presumably older man to think that the youth would actually listen to his advice, for example?

      That said, the poem does make a serious point about how things like falling in and out of love are major milestones in growing up. These mistakes shape people as they get older—which is why, though the speaker is now only 22, it does seem plausible that the speaker’s whole perspective on life has changed. The poem allows for this ending to be seen as both humorous and serious at once.

      • See where this theme is active in the poem.
    • Theme Amor and Dolor

      Love and Pain

      “When I Was One-and-Twenty” has one clear message about love: that it inevitably leads to suffering. A wise man, presumably speaking from experience, tries to warn the young speaker not to fall in love—because giving “the heart” away is “paid with sighs a plenty” and “endless rue” (that is, misery). On first glance, then, poem could almost be seen as anti-love. But perhaps it’s more accurate to think of the poem as showing the way that love is an irresistible force, even when it’s warned against.

      This link between love and sorrow is set up by the wise man’s words in the first stanza. Essentially, he says it would be better to give everything away than the “heart.” That is, it would be better to experience other kinds of destitution—namely, falling from riches to poverty—than to fall in love. Love, continues the man in the second stanza, is a kind of transaction in which the lovers always come off worse, eventually.

      This world-weary advice contrasts with the speaker’s inability to heed it. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that the speaker is stubborn—it might just speak to the way that love ultimately proves more powerful than being sensible or playing things safe. Ultimately, though, the poem confirms that there is definitely some truth in what the wise man says—that there’s a kernel of wisdom in his words.

      The poem then ends by switching from the past to the present tense, with the speaker confirming that they now know what the wise man said was right: “’tis true, ’tis true.” The slight air of resignation here also subtly suggests that things will always be this way. The speaker doesn’t, for example, really try to convince the reader to follow the wise man’s advice—but just wearily admits that he was right.

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  • Line-by-Line Explanation & Analysis of “When I Was One-and-Twenty”
    • Lines 1-4

      When I was one-and-twenty        I heard a wise man say, “Give crowns and pounds and guineas        But not your heart away;

      Housman’s “When I Was One-and-Twenty” takes the form of a cautionary fable, the unnamed speaker relating what happened when the speaker failed to take the advice of a “wise man.” The opening two lines establish the speaker’s age at the time—21—and contrast the speaker with the figure of the wise man. By implication, this latter man is older and thereby more experienced in the ways of the world—and, in particular, love.

      The whole poem has a very child-like sound to it, evoking the tone and rhythm of a nursery rhyme. Here, in particular, the /w/ sounds in “when,” “was,” “one” and “wise” are particularly light and playful. This alliteration perhaps suggests the youthful naivety of the speaker at the time in question.

      Lines 3 and 4 cite the wise man’s advice. Essentially, this advice compares falling in love to a kind of financial transaction, saying it would be more sensible for someone to give away all their money rather than risk giving away their heart (“crowns and pounds and guineas” are all types of British coins). The polysyndeton in line 3, with the repeated “and,” emphasizes the wise man’s words, but also contributes to the poem’s overall playful sound.

      As with much of Housman’s poetry, critics are divided over whether his poems actually are naive and adolescent, or whether they deliberately mimic the kind of thought processes and feelings that come with being adolescent (Housman himself wrote this poem in his mid-30s). The reader might also question the usefulness of the wise man’s advice. That is, to what extent can falling in love—and being heartbroken—really be compared to giving money away.

      The wise man’s words are especially musical:

      “Give crowns and pounds and guineas But not your heart away;

      The assonance of /i/, /ow/, /a/, and /aw/ sounds highlighted above gives the man’s words the air of an old saying, advice handed down from generation to generation. The internal rhyme of “crowns and pounds” adds to this effect. But it also makes his words sound kind of throwaway—easy to remember, but hard to put into practice.

    • Lines 5-8

      Give pearls away and rubies        But keep your fancy free.” But I was one-and-twenty,        No use to talk to me.

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    • Lines 9-14

      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.”

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    • Lines 15-16

      And I am two-and-twenty,        And oh, ’tis true, ’tis true.

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  • “When I Was One-and-Twenty” Poetic Devices & Figurative Language
    • Alliteration

      “When I Was One-and-Twenty” is a very musical-sounding poem, and much of this effect is achieved through alliteration. Overall, this helps give the poem a bright and breezy flow which is somewhat at odds with the subject of heartbreak. Perhaps the poem does this intentionally in order to suggest the way that young people tend to ignore the advice of the “wise” and need to make their own mistakes.

      The first example of alliteration is across lines 1 and 2:

      When I was one-and-twenty I heard a wise man say,

      The insistent /w/ sound here is playful, suggesting the once carefree attitude of the speaker. A similar early example of alliteration comes in line 6, which is part of the wise man’s advice (which the speaker quotes directly): “Fancy free.” The phrase also has a playful sound, contrasting light /f/ consonants with the heaviness of a broken heart. Similar alliteration is also found in lines 13 and 14 through “paid,” “plenty,” “sighs,” and “sold.” This alliteration again fits in with the musical playfulness.

      Lines 7 and 8 also use alliteration through /t/ sounds:

      But I was one-and-twenty, No use to talk to me.

      These are best considered together with the same sound that appears in the poem’s last two lines (the equivalent section of the second stanza):

      And I am two-and-twenty, And oh, ’tis true, ’tis true.

      The alliteration is one element among many that makes these two pairs of lines extremely similar. The whole point here is to show the reader that between the time of first love and of first heartbreak there is very little difference—but, in reality, everything changes. The two pairs, lines 7-8 and 15-16, are almost the same, but one relates to naive optimism and the other to melancholic understanding.

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    • Assonance

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    • Caesura

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    • Enjambment

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    • Repetition

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    • Consonance

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    • Metaphor

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  • “When I Was One-and-Twenty” Vocabulary

    Select any word below to get its definition in the context of the poem. The words are listed in the order in which they appear in the poem.

    • One-and-twenty
    • Crowns and pounds and guineas
    • Keep your fancy free
    • Bosom
    • In vain
    • Rue
    • Two-and-twenty
    • ‘Tis

    One-and-twenty

    • A poetic way of saying 21—i.e., the speaker is 21 years old.

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  • Form, Meter, & Rhyme Scheme of “When I Was One-and-Twenty”
    • Form

      “When I Was One-and-Twenty” is comprised of two stanzas, both eight lines in length (also known as octaves or octets).

      The stanzas are not just similar in length, but in many other ways too. They each start and end with the poem’s refrain, “When I was one-and-twenty,” and each stanza has the same structure: the first two and last two lines belonging to the main speaker, and the inner four lines quoting the “wise man” directly.

      In the first stanza, the speaker recounts how the wise man warned that giving away anything and everything would be better than heartbreak. The speaker comments on this at the end of the stanza, saying it was “no use to talk to me.”

      In the second stanza, the wise man is quoted once again, expanding on his advice by outlining the pains of heartbreak. The circular nature of this warning—as though the wise man warns people all the time, and, likewise, is never listened to—perhaps speaks to the way love is a stronger force than wisdom. The poem ends with an important shift, switching into the present tense with the speaker’s admission that the wise man spoke some truth.

      The use of the refrain in the first and seventh line of each stanza captures the poem’s sense both of circularity and of change. In the repetition of the speaker’s age, the poem emphasizes how the speaker’s attitude is determined by how old they are, rather than the advice the wise man repeatedly gives. At the same time, the change in the speaker’s age from 21 to 22 captures how people’s perspectives change after they have new life experiences.

    • Meter

      “When I Was One-and-Twenty” is a tightly regulated metrical poem. The meter is iambic trimeter, meaning there are three stresses per line in a da-DUM pattern. Here is line 2:

      I heard | a wise | man say,

      There is one key adjustment throughout the poem, however: every odd-numbered line has an extra unstressed syllable at the end (this is technically called a feminine ending). To demonstrate, here is line 1 (an odd-numbered line):

      When I | was one- | and-twen- | ty

      This ends the line on a swinging, song-like effect that contrasts with the straight-up iambic even-numbered lines (like line 2 quoted above). For another example, take lines 3 and 4. Line 3, the odd-numbered line, again has that extra dangling syllable at the end, whereas line 4 is perfect iambic trimeter:

      Give crowns | and pounds | and guin- | eas But not | your heart | away;

      The effect of this regularity—combined with the quirky extra syllable—is very musical, giving the poem a sing-song, almost nursery-rhyme style. This can be read as a subtle expression of youthful naivety. Critics have often argued whether this naivety is an effect that Housman purposefully created, or if it’s unintended. Either way, it certainly helps define the poem.

      The poem is also notable for how closely it sticks to the meter. Rather than changing up the meter at key points for emphasis, the rhythm of the poem stays constant. This helps draw attention to how the two stanzas mirror one another. By keeping the meter the same throughout, the speaker captures the repetitive nature of the wise man’s warnings (as well as the speaker’s own disregard for those warning).

      The constant meter also keeps the poem moving very quickly, as if the speaker’s 21st year flies by. This unflagging pace makes the final two lines, which function almost like a punch line, hit that much harder and unexpectedly.

    • Rhyme Scheme

      “When I Was One-and-Twenty” uses end-rhyme throughout its 16 lines, which is typical of Housman’s poetry more generally.

      The scheme itself is slightly up for debate depending on whether line 1 (“twenty”) is said to rhyme with lines 3 and 5 (“guineas” and “rubies”) or not. Though “twenty” lacks consonance with “guineas” and “rubies,” these words are still assonant. The shared long /e/ sound arguably produces a slant rhyme.

      Given that the other rhymes are quite precise, the scheme for the first stanza that doesn’t count lines 1 and lines 3/5 as the same would be as follows:

      ABCBCDAD

      The second stanza is very slightly different, because here the word “twenty” (the first A in the scheme below) clearly rhymes with “plenty” in line 13:

      ABCBADAD

      The precise scheme doesn’t matter too much in this instance, because the effect of the rhymes is the same either way. The shortness of the lines coupled with the obviousness of the rhyme sounds makes for a very musical, playful kind of poem. Perhaps there is a certain irony at play between the seemingly serious subject matter and the light tone in which it is presented.

      One rhyme that seems particularly important is the last one: “rue”/”true.”This is the speaker’s way of confirming the wisdom in the wise man’s words—the rhyme sings loud and clear, marking itself as the poem’s final sound. This links “rue” (misery and regret) with the truthfulness of the wise man’s advice.

  • “When I Was One-and-Twenty” Speaker
    • The speaker of the poem is a 22-year-old who has experienced heartbreak. Beyond that, readers don’t get more specific information about this person—no name, gender, occupation etc. All readers know is that a wise man advised this speaker not to fall in love back when the speaker was 21, but the speaker did so anyway; now, now at the ripe old age of 22, the speaker understands the wise man’s warning. That said, there’s a sense of youthful naivety in the speaker’s lamenting tone at the end of the poem—which is perhaps deliberately ironic. The speaker’s newfound confidence in the ways of the world comes across as a little silly, given that the speaker is just a year old at this point. That said, this revelation could also be taken more sincerely, at face value.

      Essentially, the poem takes the form of a nugget of wisdom, passed on from the “wise man” to the speaker and, in turn, the reader (with added commentary from the speaker). Thus the other speaker in the poem, of course, is the wise man himself. He appears to be quoted directly in lines 3-6 and 11-14. The degree to which his advice—to not fall in love—is actually wise is up for debate. But he does seem to point to a universal truth in the sense that love and suffering do often go hand in hand.

  • “When I Was One-and-Twenty” Setting
    • “When I Was One-and-Twenty” doesn’t really use any specifics to build a sense of setting, though the mention of British coins in line 3 (“crowns and pounds and guineas”) perhaps gives a clue in terms of location.

      There is, however, a sense of time setting in relation to the speaker. The speaker is talking to the reader from the present—and thus from within the midst of their “endless rue,” a.k.a. their heartbreak.

      The poem, then, has two main points in time: before this heartbreak and after. These are marked by the speaker’s age: 21 in the first line, and 22 in the penultimate. This an attempt to show that, while little has changed about the speaker’s life in a general sense, in another way everything has been changed by the experience of love and loss.

  • Literary and Historical Context of “When I Was One-and-Twenty”

      Literary Context

      Many of the poems in A Shropshire Lad, in which this poem first appeared, were composed after the death of Housman’s friend Adalbert Jackson, and the collection often touches on themes of death, grief, and the fleeting nature of youth. The collection also valorizes soldiers, which eventually helped lead to its popularity throughout Britain during the Boer War as well as World War I.

      That said, Housman is a poet whose literary reputation is still up for debate. For some, he is a complicated soul whose poetry—especially A Shropshire Lad—captured a sense of mood and place particular to his home country, England (“Shropshire” is an English county). For others, he is a fusty writer with an almost adolescent way of looking at the world. Ezra Pound, the famous Modernist, once characterized Housman’s poetry as “woe, etc.” Some critics see his poems as more like songs of adolescence—poems that, like William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience over a hundred years earlier, take on different voices to explore a particular type of life. Others just see his poetry as somewhat naive and trite. It’s worth remembering that A Shropshire Lad was published when Housman was in his mid-thirties (1896).

      Housman was a keen classical scholar of Latin, which perhaps informs the tightly wrought form on display in this poem. The main subject matter itself—the pains of love—is perhaps one of the oldest and most enduring of all subjects in art. The poem could fairly be compared to a modern-day pop song just as much as a Shakespearean sonnet or, indeed, the poetry of Housman’s contemporaries—people like Oscar Wilde or Algernon Charles Swinburne.

      Historical Context

      Housman published his main collection, A Shropshire Lad, near the end of the Victorian Era. Its popularity rose in part due to the Boer War, a British conflict in South Africa that stirred up strong feelings about nationhood and a kind of nostalgia for a certain way of British life. Similarly, the same collection was popular during World War I.

      Though it’s completely unreferenced in the collection, one of the most intriguing aspects of A Shropshire Lad is the way in which it relates to Housman’s sexuality. Housman fell in love with Moses Jackson while they were both studying at Oxford. His feelings were unreciprocated—Jackson was not homosexual—and Housman felt this rejection deeply. Perhaps this unrequited love makes its way into the poem, then. But it’s worth remember how life as a homosexual was very different then than it is now, in the sense that homosexuality was still illegal (and widely considered to be immoral) in late 19th-century Britain. Housman would have been taking a huge risk to discuss any of his feelings towards Jackson openly in his work, but a focus on the male form—and particularly in terms of athleticism—can be found throughout Housman’s poetry.

  • More “When I Was Twenty-One” Resources
    • External resources

      • Housman’s Life and Work: A Valuable Resource from the Poetry Foundation. 

      • The Poem Aloud – The poem read by Jason Shelton.

      • “The Invention of Love” – ​​A clip from a play by Tom Stoppard, which imagines AE Housman visiting the classic underworld. 

      • Parody of Ezra Pound – In this poem, American modernist poet Ezra Pound mocks Housman’s tendency toward “ouch”.  

      • “A Shropshire Lad”: the full text of Housman’s most popular book of poems, del cual se tomó “When I was a year twenty”.

    • LitCharts on other poems by AE Housman

      • To an athlete who dies young

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Howard, James. “When she was twenty-one.” LitCharts. LitCharts LLC, 7 January 2020. Web. October 7, 2022.

Howard, James. “When I was twenty-one.” LitCharts. LitCharts LLC, January 7, 2020. Web. October 7, 2022.

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when i was twenty one

1 When I Was Twenty-One

2 I heard a wise man say:

3 “Give crowns and pounds and guineas

4 But do not turn away your heart;

5 Regala pearls and rubies

6 But keep your fantasy free.

7 But I was twenty-one years old,

8 There’s no use talking to me.

9 When I Was Twenty-One

10 I heard him say again:

11 “The heart of the bosom

12 It was never given in vain;

13 ‘It pays with sighs in abundance

14 and sold by the endless rue.

15 And I am twenty-two years old,

16 Oui, oh, it’s true, it’s true.

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Lines 3-4

Builds up to a grandeur, like crushed oil ooze

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