“When I was One and Twenty” Literature Analysis

Reading “When I was One and Twenty” by A. E. Housman leaves a mark on one’s memory of falling in love if he had experienced something familiar like the speaker of the poem did when he was twenty-one and unwilling to take advice from an elderly and wise person. The monologue is most elegantly written and simply puts across the message of youth not paying heed to advise from an astute man who ultimately faces the consequences the moment he turns twenty-two. There could be another possibility that the youth did realize that “the wise man” was trying to transfer wisdom onto him but he was too young to remain steady and follow it.

The poem has two rhymed stanzas consisting of eight lines each. The detected rhyme scheme is ABCBCDAD for the first stanza and ABCBADAD for the second one. The concluding rhymes are considered as fully such as “say” and ‘away” in lines 2 and 4 respectively. The poem has a certain musicality about it since the even-numbered lines have six syllables containing three segments which make it an iambic trimester while odd-numbered lines have seven syllables with an additional unaccented syllable in the last segment giving a feminine touch towards the end (Housman 1986).

In the poem, the speaker is recalling advice he did not pay attention to as a youth. The speaker chooses to give his age as one and twenty instead of twenty one as assonance to the advice “Give crowns and pounds and guineas” in the third line, and one can also notice the alliteration “But keep your fancy free” inline-six. The poem’s emotions and imagery seem more immediate because the advice seems more like a warning. The warning indicates to the speaker that despite the basic needs of food and shelter give money and rubies “but not your heart away” because it is painful to lose someone than to stay without these material necessities of life (Housman 1986). The speaker realizes that he did not listen in his youthfulness and because of that he suffers from the pain of unrequited love.

Surprising only one year has passed since the speaker declined the wisdom of the wise man and he appears to be more experienced because of the intensity of the sorrow and woe he had felt ever since he lost in his attempt to give his heart away to another. Hence there is a realization that falling in love brings misery and “endless rue” in a person’s life especially when it is not from both ends. The speaker sighs “Oh” towards the end and then there is a repetition “‘tis true ‘tis true” in the concluding line which indicates the youth’s recognition of the warning (Housman 1986). The poem reveals that in the ranks of wise men the survival of one’s love is easier because they have already experienced the light.

In both the stanzas of the poem, there is a common message. Both talk about similar objects and use the same language, however, the only difference is in the speaker’s attitude towards life. In the first stanza, he is introduced as a brash boy of one and twenty “No use to talk to me”. In the second stanza, the speaker has learned the most precious lesson on life as well as love and has gained maturity. The concept of money employed in the poem is a unique way to elaborate on the trials of love through the use of money language: “crowns, pound, guineas, pearls, rubies, paid and sold” (Housman 1986). But according to the wise man, the youth must guard his life against being taken over by the material possessions or other people’s opinions except for his emotional life.

The speaker in the poem “When I was One and Twenty” does a remarkable job of conveying his wisdom to the readers by way of sharing his experience. He is lonely and suffering from the pain of unrequited love because of his youthful negligence. The language of the poem is simple and delicate just as the situation being discussed. The rhyming scheme gives the poem a certain rhythm which makes it even more tragic and emotional for the readers. The poem ends with an agreement between the speaker’s monologue and the warning in a clearly expressed manner. The simplicity of the expression makes the situation more severe and the readers can feel the intensity of sorrow felt by the speaker. As a mature youth of twenty-two, the speaker is able to admit his mistake accepting the wretchedness in his life.


Work Cited
Housman, A E. When I Was One and Twenty: Poems. Bexhill on Sea, England ?: Silver Thimble Press? 1986. Print.

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