When I Was One-and-Twenty

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When I Was One-and-Twenty

A. E. Housman 1896

Author Biography

Poem Text

Poem Summary



Historical Context

Critical Overview



For Further Study

This poem, like nearly all of A. E. Housman’s most famous poems, was written when the poet was a young man, and was originally published in 1896 as part of Housman’s first book of poems, A Shropshire Lad. Its subject matter, contrasting the vivacity of youth with expressions of loss and sorrow, is a frequent theme of Housman’s. In the speaker’s narrative, or dramatic monologue, he tells of failing to heed the advice of an older man to guard his heart and consequently experiencing the pain of young lost love. “When I Was One-and-Twenty” may be seen as an example of the way in which Housman’s poetry frequently creates or describes a world that provokes no response beyond a painful endurance. However, it many also be seen as an example of how Housman’s poetry contains a lightness of verse and musicality that almost contradicts the expressed anguish.

Author Biography

Housman was born in 1859 in Fockbury, Worcestershire, England. The eldest of seven children in a family that would produce a famous dramatist (Housman’s younger brother, Laurence) and a novelist and short story writer (his sister Clemence), Housman attended Bromsgrove School, a notable institution that emphasized Greek and Latin studies. Though successful academically, Housman was a small and frail boy who did not easily form friendships. When he was twelve, Housman’s mother died, the first of a number of events which would affect him profoundly and erode his religious faith. (Years later he would write that he “became a deist at thirteen and an atheist at twenty-one.”) He also developed a pronounced facial tic that he never entirely overcame.

Housman earned a scholarship to St. John’s College, Oxford, which he began attending in 1877. He immersed himself in the study of classical languages, particularly Latin and Greek, and he also helped to found Ye Round Table, an undergraduate magazine featuring humorous verse and satire (a skill in which he excelled, though critics would later condemn his poetry for being stark and humorless). While at college Housman established a friendship with a classmate, Moses Jackson, that would have an enormous impact upon his life. Jackson was a good-looking, athletic young man with whom Housman fell hopelessly and permanently in love. Jackson rebuffed his friend’s affections, and Housman was heartbroken; many of his subsequent poems speak of unrequited love and refer to the rejection he suffered when he was “one-and-twenty.” Initially, Housman excelled at his studies at Oxford. However, in 1879 he failed his final examinations; not only did he fail, he turned in answer books that were nearly blank but for seemingly random scribblings. The reason for this is generally attributed to some sort of nervous breakdown, though its origins are cause for speculation: some feel it may have been the result of overconfidence, others speculate that it was caused by his pining over Jackson, while still others conjecture that Housman failed deliberately, if subconsciously. Regardless of the cause, Housman returned home ungraduated and disgraced; though he returned to Oxford a year later and obtained a “pass” degree, it seemed the door to a career in academia was closed.

In 1882 Housman passed the civil service examination and took a position in a London patent office—a career decision that was influenced, no doubt, by the fact that Jackson was employed at the same office. For the first four years of his ten-year stay at the patent office he shared a West End apartment with Moses Jackson and his younger brother Adalbert Jackson. Housman spent his evenings at the British Museum library studying Greek and Latin. When, in 1888, Moses Jackson left England for a teaching position in Karachi, India, Housman withdrew into a monkish seclusion, occupied only with his studies and scholarly writing. A number of his articles were published in journals such as the Classical Review and the Journal of Philology, and they began to earn for Housman a reputation

as a brilliant and meticulous scholar. When the Chair of Greek and Latin at University College, London, became available in 1892, the institution overlooked Housman’s academic falterings and appointed him to the vacant position. In November of 1892 Adalbert Jackson—who, since the departure of Moses, had been Housman’s closest friend—died of typhoid. This trauma created an emotional explosion that resulted in Housman’s composing A Shropshire Lad, a collection of sixty-three poems addressing the themes of unrequited love, the oblivion of death, and idealized military life. Because of the 1895 persecution and imprisonment of poet Oscar Wilde, Housman was careful to distance himself from the homosexuality depicted in A Shropshire Lad, often adopting the persona “Terence Hearsay.” The first printing of Housman’s collection, published in 1896, was done so at the poet’s own expense; neither it nor a second edition, published two years later by a different publisher, sold particularly well. However, when the Boer War broke out in 1899, readers rediscovered the numerous patriotic military poems in the volume, and sales were quickly booming. After the publication of A Shropshire Lad, Housman’s writing efforts were restricted to scholarly publications—and those limited chiefly to the study of a single classic Roman author of questionable skill and influence, Manilius. The reason for this somewhat odd choice of subject matter was simple: the decidedly shallow nature of Manilius’s text allowed Housman to showcase his own editorial and critical talents, thus earning him greater professional distinction. He completed a total of five volumes on Manilius.

Housman’s poetic output, which had previously gushed from him in a torrent, was reduced to a trickle. Thus it was not until 1922 that he produced his second collection of verse, the aptly titled Last Poems. Though more than a quarter century had elapsed since the publication of A Shropshire Lad, the poems contained in Last Poems were nearly identical in theme, form, and diction to those in the earlier volume. In 1923 Moses Jackson died, and with him went much of Housman’s inspiration; he wrote only a few more lines of prose before his death in 1936. Housman continues to be a popular and frequently read poet despite the fact that since the initial publication of his verse, his work has been intermittently praised and rebuffed for what has been called its “obvious limitations.” While his overriding morbidity of theme is often described as tedious and adolescent, Housman’s open investigations of the mysteries of death and the dual nature of humankind have earned him acknowledgment as a precursor to the development of modern poetry.

Poem Text

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                  5
   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,                   10  
“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,                    15
   And oh, ’tis true, ’tis true.

Poem Summary

Lines 1-4

In the opening lines, the speaker begins his monologue by clearly expressing that at the age of twenty-one he was warned, by a man the speaker considered “wise,” not to give his heart away. Notice that the remembered warning is in the form of a quote, rather than a paraphrase, which makes the poem’s imagery and emotions more immediate. A wise person can be thought to be one who has already experienced the pain of a lost or unrequited love. Here, the wise person, who, we assume in his wisdom, also knows the value of financial stability, and the attraction of money, has warned the young speaker of the poem that being poor is better than suffering the pain and despair of lost love—of living after having given your very heart away. The images of the currency become a concrete manifestation of the contrast between things of the heart and things of the world. The inherent message in the warning is that though you need money to buy food and shelter, it would be better to go without these necessities that keep us alive than to suffer in love.

Lines 5-6

Here the speaker continues to quote the wise man exactly, remembering that he had warned the speaker to go even beyond giving away the standard monetary currency of “crowns,” “pounds,” and “guineas”; to give precious gems away, such as “pearls” and “rubies,” rather than allow his “fancy,” or love, to be restricted. This suggests that the heart is more precious than gems, and ought to be guarded even more carefully. Use of the images of “pearls” and “rubies” intensifies the emotional impact of the remembered warning expressed through the images of the “crowns,” “pounds,” and “guineas” of the previous lines.

Lines 7-8

In these lines, the speaker admits that when he was twenty-one he wasn’t in the habit of listening to or heeding lessons attempting to be taught by someone of experience. There is an implication here that youth not listening to those older or wiser is a universally understood concept.

Lines 9-14

In this section of the poem, the speaker tells us that he was warned more than once. Here, Housman uses the word “paid” in line 13 to continue the imagery of monetary currency and gems in the previous stanza. The impact that this has, perhaps, is to make us feel even more intensely that there is always an exchange in life, that one can never get something for nothing. In this instance, the price for giving up “fancy” and the heart will be “endless rue,” or sorrow. The new quotation marks at the beginning of line 11 and the end of line 14 serve to magnify how exactly the speaker remembers the second warning as well. By the end of the poem, we realize, this quotation has probably had the effect of taking us more directly into the speaker’s agony by hearing the words even as he has gone over them in his “rue.”

Lines 15-16

In the final lines of the poem Housman completes the speaker’s monologue in a simply and clearly expressed agreement with the wise man’s warnings. Just one year older, and apparently now experienced in the pain of lost or unrequited love, he simply states “’tis true.” However, he begins his expression with the word “oh,” and repeats the phrase “’tis true,” which suggests the intensity of the woe and sorrow felt, while continuing the poem’s musicality. Here, the conciseness and simplicity of expression allow us, perhaps, to feel even more severely the impact of the warnings contained above.


Knowledge and Ignorance

The speaker of this poem admits that he did not, or could not, follow the advice given to him when he was twenty-one, even though it came from a wise man. There are two possible reasons for his failure to act. The first is that he did not recognize the wisdom of the wise man until he turned twenty-two and through experience came to see the wisdom of his advice. The other possibility is that the poem’s speaker did realize that it was good advice at the time but was helpless to do anything about it because he was too young; when he had matured, it was as if a spell had been broken, and he realized the wisdom of the man’s words.

Both of these ways of looking at the phrase “a wise man” illustrate the same thing about knowledge—that it can only be absorbed when one is ready for it—but each one implies a slightly different lesson about this particular character. The poem subtly draws the line between knowledge that is told by someone else and knowledge that is gained from experience, showing readers that experiential knowledge is the only kind that matters. Another issue that is left to interpretation is whether ignoring wise advice and only drawing from experience is meant to represent the human condition, as the poem’s lofty tone implies, or if it is only a condition of youth.

Media Adaptations

  • A phonographic record titled On Wenlock Edge: Songs from A Shropshire Lad was released by Arabesque Recordings in 1980.
  • Poems and Songs from A Shropshire Lad, a two-album phonographic recording, was released by Hyperion, London, in 1995.
  • In 1965 Caedmon released an audio cassette read by James Mason titled A Shropshire Lad and Other Poetry


This poem conveys the message that a person in love is not free, that one must avoid giving their heart to another in order to keep their “fancy free.” Money, it tells us, makes no such claim on personal freedom. The advice to “Give crowns and pounds and guineas” away contradicts common knowledge, which dictates that acquiring wealth gives a person the means with which to pursue happiness. Housman tells us, through the persona of the wise man, that acquired wealth has nothing to do with freedom and therefore does not affect happiness. Falling in love, on the other hand, does take one’s freedom, and therefore leaves a person in misery, or “endless rue.”

There is some historical precedent to his view of love, since the idea of “giving away” one’s heart is a common way of speaking of love. Popular songs, for instance, tell us of being enslaved by love, of behaving how one otherwise would not behave, losing one’s will and being made weak. In popular culture, though, this loss of freedom is presented as a positive thing, a feeling that the person in love welcomes; what “When I Was One-and-Twenty” adds is a sense of just how miserable an experience it is to lose one’s freedom in this way. The poem never says whether its speaker is successful in love—that is, whether the person he has given his heart to loves him back—which leaves readers to assume that any sort of love will be “paid

Topics for Further Study

  • This poem tells of a truth that the speaker cannot understand when he is twenty-one but does when he is twenty-two. Think of a piece of advice that you were not impressed with when it was given, but seems obvious now. Write a poem that shows concrete objects, the way that Housman does, to express your belief in a positive light.
  • Write a short story about the old man who gives advice in this poem, showing your readers why he gives the advice that he does. Has he had good luck with love or bad luck? Do you think he is married? Did he give away large sums of money at one time, or did he just give away his love?
  • This poem was published in 1896, at a time when the Industrial Revolution was at its height in England. At the time, young men would have been more familiar with commerce than earlier generations. How do you think the growth of cities might have affected Housman’s decision to compare love to buying and selling?

with sighs a plenty,” presumably because any person who is in love is not free.

Rites of Passage

Readers are told that something has happened to the speaker of this poem between the ages of twenty-one and twenty-two to make him realize that the wise man’s advice about love was true. The new attitude is not presented as being a misstep, or as a temporary response to a situation; in fact, it is presented as the truth. The person in the poem is meant to have matured from ignorance to understanding in one year. Why, at the end of the poem, does he reflect on the wise man’s words with, “’Tis true, ’tis true”? Age alone might be the cause: the poem might be saying that within the year between twenty-one and twenty-two just happens, for reasons sociological or biological, to be the time of life when this truth makes itself known.

More likely, though, this poem wants us to believe that something happened in the intervening year to change this speaker’s perspective. The poem does not describe such an event, but it is unlikely that the sort of bitter disappointment described here could occur by itself, spontaneously. This seems like more of an absolute truth than a response to just one bad relationship. If the new understanding is true, and if most people come to this understanding as they age, then going through the experience can fairly be called a “rite of passage.” The message of this poem seems to be that the effect of surviving one’s First Big Love (or possibly one’s First Big Disastrous Love) is to be elevated into the ranks of wise people who have already seen the light.


“When I Was One-and-Twenty” is a dramatic monologue written in the form of a Scottish lyric ballad or song that exemplifies Housman’s acknowledged influence by German lyric balladist Heinrich Heine, Shakespeare’s songs, as well as the border ballads of Scotland. The poem consists of two stanzas of eight lines each. All of the even-numbered lines contain end rhymes, such as “say” and “away,” while none of the odd-numbered lines rhyme, for a rhyme scheme of abcb. The end rhymes in the poem are considered perfect or full rhymes, because after their differing consonants they contain identical, accented vowel sounds, such as in “say” and “away.” The poem also contains some near rhymes within individual lines of the poem; for example, “crowns” and “pounds” in line 3, and “not” and “heart” in line 4. A rhyme occuring within a line is called internal rhyme.

If the poem is read aloud, a certain rhythm or meter can be heard. Each of the odd-numbered lines contains seven syllables, and each of the even-numbered lines contains six syllables. This gives the poem a musicality, precision, and conciseness that can be seen as classical elements. There is also a definite beat recurring in each line, called iambic: segments of two syllables where the first is unstressed and the second is stressed. For example, look at the second line of this poem:

heard   / a wise   / man say   …

All of the even-numbered lines of this poem contain three segments, or feet of iambs, which is called iambic trimeter. All of the odd-numbered lines of this poem contain one extra syllable in the

Compare & Contrast

  • 1896: L. Starr Jameson, a revolutionary who unsuccessfully lead a raid against the Boer government in South Africa, was sent to England for trial. He was found guilty but received an unusually light sentence, raising the suspicions of the Boers, who were the white descendants of Dutch settlers from the 1830s; they believed that the British wanted to rule South Africa because gold had been discovered there in 1884.

    1899-1902: The Boer War between Great Britain and residents of Transvaal and Orange Free State in what is now South Africa ended with an uneasy peace settlement recognizing British sovereignty.

    1948: The Republic of South Africa, populated mostly by Afrikaners (a modern name for Boers), voted for a system of racial segregation known as apartheid, which denied black Africans full social recognition and privileges.

    1990: Finally succumbing to international pressure, the apartheid system was abolished in South Africa.

    Today: Nelson Mandela, a black African who spent nearly thirty years in prison for his opposition to apartheid, has been president of South Africa since 1990.

  • 1896: In Plessy v. Ferguson, one of the most influential legal cases in U.S. history, the Supreme Court ruled that states could provide separate facilities for black citizens to use, creating a legal basis for “Whites Only” drinking fountains, public transportation, hospitals, rest rooms, etc.

    1954: Ruling in the case of Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, the Supreme Court ruled by a margin of 9 to 0 that “separate could never be equal,” and therefore that separate schools for blacks and whites violated the U.S. Constitution.

    1955: Rosa Parks refused to leave the section of a Montgomery, Alabama bus that was designated for white use only, and was arrested; the year-long boycott of the bus system following her arrest showed the power of blacks as consumers and helped bring an end to segregation.

    Today: States and municipalities around the country are questioning whether “Affirmative Action” programs that are supposed to bring employment situations into racial balance are doing more harm than good.

  • 1896: The first public showing of a motion picture in the United States took place in New York.

    Today: The American film industry makes almost six billion dollars in ticket sales annually.

  • 1896: The first motor car available to the U.S. public, the Haynes-Duryea, went on sale. Twenty-five cars were produced that year.

    Today: The United States produces twelve million cars per year; worldwide production is approximately 50 million cars per year.

final segment, creating what is called a feminine ending, which means there is an extra unaccented syllable at the end of the line. Although it is possible to ascribe this detailed beat and meter to the poem, it is generally regarded simply as a ballad, or is sometimes referred to as a lyric ballad that contains classical overtones because of Housman’s use of short words and precise and clear construction.

Historical Context

The literary world of Britain in the late 1800s was dominated by quiet traditionalism, continuing the mood of prosperity and complacency set by the reigning queen, Victoria, who had ascended to the throne in 1837. Today, the Victorian Age is remembered as a period of hypocrisy, when citizens adhered to strong codes of moral decency in public even if they behaved quite differently in private.

After the death of Victoria’s husband, Albert, in 1861, the queen never remarried, spending the next forty years in mourning. Her stiff-lipped prudery set the pace for the rest of the country’s mood. The economy of Great Britain prospered throughout the last half of the nineteenth century, mainly due to the expansion of the British Empire, as lands across the world became British colonies. While the country’s upper class prospered, though, the poor suffered new and unimagined lows, especially in the cities. The Industrial Revolution affected most developed countries across the globe and brought millions of people from farms to take jobs in manufacturing. In the city, they crowded into slums and, among filth and unchecked pollution that blocked the sun so thoroughly that the street lamps in London often had to be left on during the day. Novelists such as Charles Dickens and George Meredith drew attention to the suffering and injustices in the Victorian system, but there was little incentive for those in power to change.

By the time Housman wrote this poem in the 1890s, the Victorian tradition of masking inner oppression with outward cheerfulness and respectability was starting to wear thin. In England, an artistic movement called “aestheticism” gained popularity. Its motto, “Art for art’s sake,” advocated beauty above all else, including morality. Rebelling against the prevailing ideas of goodness and evil, aesthetes drew attention to the distance between real experience and the necessary artificiality of art. As the 1890s progressed, the aesthetes took the name “decadents,” which challenged polite society’s conventions even further. Decadent poets include Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Charles Swinburne.

In 1895 one of the most famous decadents, Oscar Wilde, was brought to trial for homosexuality. Wilde, a flamboyant, attention-loving public figure, did much to bring the charges against himself; accused of homosexuality by a lover’s father, he sued the father for slander, bringing attention to his private life and forcing the government to invoke an obscure law banning homosexuality. The fact that the case dominated the headlines undoubtedly affected Housman as he tried to find a publisher for A Shropshire Lad. He ended up publishing it with his own money in 1896. Wilde served two years in jail, then moved to Paris and changed his name, though, ironically, his case did help dissolve the piety of Victorianism by raising questions about whether the government should legislate morality.

A Shropshire Lad was not recognized as an important work when it was first published; in a few years, when Britain entered the Boer War in 1899, the book’s war poems caught the public’s imagination, raising it to a best-seller and establishing it as one of the great poetry collections of all time. There was much support in Britain for the war, but there were also great misgivings. It took place in what is now South Africa, between British settlers and the Afrikaners, known also as Boers, who were the descendents of the Dutch who had colonized the area earlier. The war lasted for three years and the British were victorious.

In 1914 World War I started, introducing the world to fighting and destruction on scales previously unheard-of; literature, in the early years of the century and then even increasingly after the war’s end in 1919, turned toward modernism, focusing on the individual’s feelings and encouraging artists to experiment with new, exotic forms that quickly left Victorian works looking old-fashioned and stuffy.

Critical Overview

In a 1923 The Bookman article, poet, novelist, and critic William Rose Benét noted that “there is, perhaps, nothing [in Housman’s work] quite so perfect in its poignancy as was that first cry of youth, ‘When I Was One-and-Twenty.’” William R. Brashear, however, in a 1969 essay in Victorian Poetry, wrote that the “narrowness” of Housman’s subject matter may have “prevented him from coming into his own.” Brashear refers here to the themes Housman frequently employs: unrequited love, grief, despair, bad luck, and “trouble” in general. Brashear states that the troubles and despair in the poems cannot be dismissed, and when fully apprehended, many of Housman’s poems do contain “a unique starkness and power.” But he argues that some of these poems of despair and bleakness “are not among Housman’s greatest, though [they are] well-turned and eminently successful in the achievement of their limited effects.” He writes that the effects, however, are “over-indulged,” and that “there is relatively too much to do about a too little or common complaint.” He calls them, without pointing to this particular poem, “the work of a diminutive Housman,” and says “the author’s preoccupations strike one as unwholesome and immature.”

Nevertheless, this poem is seen by other critics as representative of Housman’s practice of writing poems with painful themes which are, at the same time, highly musical, and replete with important ironies and paradoxes. Gordon B. Lea points to this duality in a 1973 essay published in the The Colby Library Quarterly. He asserts that Brashear has underestimated the dualities in Housman’s poetry, and has failed to see that the poet creates in his work an “illuminating paradox” through which to explore the relationship between life and death. He calls these paradoxes “engaging discrepancies” and states that although they “occasionally accentuate the bleakness of Housman’s vision, … more frequently they relieve it, and, as a result, a poetry whose sentiments ought to depress us actually delights us.” Lea points to “When I Was One-and-Twenty” as an example of the fascinating way in which Housman uses musicality to create this kind of discrepancy between subject and sound. He first says of Housman’s poetry in general: “The poetry dramatizes that life is an agony and God an oppressor, but it does so to a music that is distractingly light and melodious, a music that often functions as an ironic descant to the bleak sentiments and painful experiences it accompanies.” He writes that this incongruity is pronounced in “When I Was One-and-Twenty,” explaining how “sound acts as a counterpoint” to the theme of the painful price of young love. He attributes this to the poem’s “agile” iambic trimeter, and its short vowel sounds and words, which “combine merrily to undermine the sadness of the speaker, a rejected or abandoned lover.”


Jhan Hochman

Jhan Hochman is a writer and instructor at Portland Community College in Portland, Oregon. In the following essay, Hochman provides biographical information on Housman and discusses whether the reader should consider “When I Was One-and-Twenty” as a “portrait of adolescence” or an “adolescent poem.”

By the time readers reach the end of A. E. Housman’s “When I Was One-and-Twenty” (1895) they will likely be divided into at least two camps: the first comprised of those echoing Housman’s twenty-two year old in an earnest chorus of “’tis true, ’tis true”; and the second, comprised of those that just smile at the earnest repetition of the antique phrase.

The former camp will, more likely than not, be young people well under the age of twenty-one since young people generally give their heart away at a much earlier age than twenty-one. The latter camp will likely be older, and these people have fallen in love. They will find the effusiveness of the poem overwrought and quaintly adolescent. In fact, there has been much critical agreement that Housman was a poet for adolescents, not for adults.

Before joining this critical multitude, however, readers should stop and ask: Is this poem adolescent, or is it better viewed as a portrait of adolescence? To answer, it would behoove readers to realize that Housman, no mere lad, was 36 when he wrote the poem, which was untitled and numbered thirteen in his first collection The Shropshire Lad (1896). Presumably he was experienced in the ways of love and of the disappointment love can bring.

This is confirmed with a little biographical information. Housman met Moses Jackson, a fellow Oxford student, and fell in love with him. Jackson, however, was heterosexual and did not return his feelings. The two, however, would remain friends for most of their lives. In verse published after he died, Housman wrote: “Because I liked you better / Than suits a man to say, / It irked you, and I promised / To throw the thought away.” Housman worked and lived together with Jackson until 1886; at that time, Housman moved to another part of London, likely because it was too difficult to live so close to the man he loved. Later, Jackson married and moved away, and it was shortly thereafter that Housman wrote the bulk of his poetry: “I did not begin to write poetry in earnest until the really emotional part of my life was over.”

If Housman had composed his love poems while experiencing emotional turmoil, the work might have suffered and indeed been merely self-centered—what some people think of as adolescent. But because he waited until he gained perspective on his feelings, it might be more prudent to think his poems transcended the merely personal, and became poems that might be called songs of adolescence—not adolescent songs.

The word lyric comes from lyre, a kind of harp Greek lyrics (singer-poets) they played as they sang. The lyric is a short poem often expressing the sentiments of the poet within stanzas or strophes (pronounced stro-feez). “When I Was One-and-Twenty” is composed of two stanzas or strophes, the second strophe called the antistrophe. The poem is in iambic trimeter (generally, three sets of unaccented and accented syllables per line), and with

What Do I Read Next?

  • Housman rose to fame as one of England’s preeminent poets on the basis of just one book, A Shropshire Lad, first published in 1896 and in print continuously throughout the past century. Included along with this poem are such standards of literature anthologies as “To An Athlete Dying Young,” “Loveliest of Trees,” and “Terrence, This IS Stupid Stuff.”
  • The Letters of A. E. Housman were edited and compiled by Henry Maas and published by Rupert Hart-Davis of London in 1971. To those even somewhat familiar with the poet’s biography, cutting past things written about him and going straight to his words can be amusing, although those completely unfamiliar with his life will find these friendly but reserved letters irrelevant.
  • In 1929, D. C. Somervell published the now-classic English Thought in the Nineteenth Century; it was published ten times in Great Britain before the first American edition in 1965. The book is not large or unduly complex, but very clear in following one social trend after another, right up to the end of the century, to the world Housman inhabited.
  • A very good literary analysis of Housman’s work in general is B.J. Leggett’s 1978 study, The Poetic Art of A. E. Housman: Theory and Practice, published by the University of Nebraska Press. The author is a very perceptive Housman scholar; in particular, his line-by-line study of “When I Was One-and-Twenty” in a chapter titled “Songs of Innocence and Experience” is well-researched and clear, if slightly dry intellectually.
  • One can get a good sense of the social pressures that affected the poet and (only slightly) cramped his subject matter from reading F. M. L. Thompson’s The Rise of Respectable Society: A Social History of Victorian Britain, 1830-1900. Housman came at the very end of the Victorian era, too late to enjoy any of its splendor but in tome to suffer from its narrow-minded stuffiness. Thompson’s book divides Victorian life by general categories, such as “Work,” “Childhood,” “Marriage,” “Homes and Houses,” making it easy to compare similar elements from our own world.
  • Tom Burns Haber edited the centennial edition of Housman’s poetry and wrote a 1967 biography entitled A. E. Housman. Of all of the Housman biographies available, this one is of particular interest to the student because it focuses most of its attention in the relationships between his life and particular poems. Casual readers might be bored with his explanations of how specific lines changed from their first written manuscript form to their publication, but writers and those familiar with the writing process will understand the significance of each minor correction.

slight variation, has an abab rhyme scheme. The song-like aspect of the poem fits a poem about adolescence, particularly since the song form has become the most popular form of music for young people—especially those songs with lyrics worshipping or denouncing love.

With this in consideration, it is not surprising that Housman was heavily influenced by the tradition of English ballads first collected in Percy’s Reliques of Ancient English Poetry(1765), still the most important source of old English ballads. Nor should readers be surprised that more than most poems, Housman’s have been turned into songs by modern songwriters.

Most contemporary criticism is wrong in that it relegates Housman to the status of “minor” and “adolescent” poet. This is not to assert that Housman is a major poet, but only that a dismissal of “When I Was One-and-Twenty” on the grounds it is simple and adolescent seems less interesting than investigating whether the poem maturely expresses, perhaps even pokes fun at, the voice(s) of adolescence. The persona of this poem looks back and understands his ignorance of what it means to give your heart away. The young man now recognizes the truth of the wise man’s advice.

The wise man might be seen as a type, that of the isolated hermit. But it is unlikely the youth is himself an ascetic, and more likely is a young man subject to the temptations of society. After all, how can a vibrant, curious, young person avoid romantic entanglement? With this in mind, is the wise man’s advice unwise or futile? Should the wise man not have said: “You will give your heart away and you will regret it. There is little you can do about it.” But perhaps the wise man was wiser than that and said something else altogether: “Go out and have a wild time (spend lots of money on, and buy lots of jewelry for, your lovers), but stay unattached until you are more experienced in the ways of the world.”

Would this version of the wise man’s advice be useful for Housman himself, a man who devoted himself to unattainable love in a time hostile to homosexuals? This hostility hit home when Housman read about a young cadet who committed suicide over what Housman thought was homosexual desire. And when in 1895 Oscar Wilde was arrested for homosexuality and imprisoned for two years, Housman sent him a present, a copy of The Shropshire Lad.

Because the object of devotion in “When I Was One-and-Twenty” is presumably female—“Give pearls away and rubies”—readers might surmise that this poem is not about a young gay man. But it is more likely that Housman could not, without dire consequences, express homosexual love in a public, and, for safety’s sake had to alter the poetic persona to that of a heterosexual.

If this is a poem about, or greatly influenced by, sexuality, it is no wonder the poem is fatalistic, whether humorously or seriously so. Notice that love is comparable to economic exchange. Love is like money paid for something in return, something beneficial like love, not unpleasant like sorrow.

In the first strophe, money facilitates fun of the sexual kind, and is a positive in that it helps the giver to avoid giving his heart away. In the antistrophe, money is cast as superior to love as a system of exchange, since what one gets in return is pleasure, not heartbreak. Is this true, or is it mock bitterness? Is this an adolescent poem or a poem about adolescence?

“Most contemporary criticism is wrong in that it relegates Housman to the status of ‘minor’ and ‘adolescent’ poet. This is not to assert that Housman is a major poet, but only that a dismissal of ‘When I Was One-and-Twenty’ on the grounds it is simple and adolescent seems less interesting than investigating whether the poem maturely expresses, perhaps even pokes fun at, the voice(s) of adolescence.”

While most readers can agree that Housman, through his persona as a young man, is telling the reader that love is hard, is he trying to do more? Is the poem itself a poem of advice, where just as the wise man advises the youth, the youth advises his readers in a poem? And if this is a poem of advice, of what are we being advised? Is the youth sincerely telling us to never fall in love (a truly adolescent poem)? Is the youth mocking the futility of the knowledge that love hurts since one can hardly avoid falling in love (a more mature poem)? Or is it possible that the young reader is advised by both the wise man and the youth to go out and enjoy sexual involvement and leave emotional involvement and commitment for later (a poem about adolescence, and for both adolescents and adults)?

While this reading might seem a typical one to come out of the end of the twentieth century—an era of omnipresent sex and uncloseted homosexuality—there is, perhaps, one thing missing from the wise man’s advice that could update Housman’s “When I Was One-and-Twenty” for the end of the second millennium. It is this: while youth should have a good time and keep their fancies free they must also remember to protect themselves.

Source: Jhan Hochman, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale, 1998.


Abrams, M. H., ed., The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Vol. II, Norton, 1986.

Bayley, John, Housman’s Poems, Oxford University Press, 1992.

Benét, William Rose, in a review of Last Poems, in The Bookman, Vol. 571, No. 1, March, 1923, pp. 83-5.

Brashear, William R., “The Trouble with Housman,” in Victorian Poetry, Vol. 7, No. 2, Summer, 1969, pp. 81-90.

Caldwell, Theodore, ed., The Anglo-Boer War: Why Was It Fought? Who Was Responsible? D.C. Heath and Co., 1965.

Ellman, Richard, ed., The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry, Norton, 1973.

Graves, Richard Perceval, A. E. Housman: The Scholar Poet, Scribner, 1980.

Halevy, Elie, Imperialism and the Rise of Labour: A History of the English People in the Nineteenth Century, volume five, Ernest Benn Limited, 1965.

Housman, A. E., The Collected Poems of A. E. Housman, Henry Holt, 1950.

Lea, Gordon B., “Ironies and Dualities in ‘A Shropshire Lad,’” in Colby Library Quarterly, Series X, No. 2, June, 1973, pp. 71-9.

Leggett, B. J., The Poetic Art of A. E. Housman, University of Nebraska Press, 1978.

Ricks, Christopher, ed., A. E. Housman: A Collection of Critical Essays, Prentice Hall, 1968.

For Further Study

Graves, Richard Perceval, A. E. Housman: The Scholar-Poet, Charles Shribner’s Sons, 1979.

This very thorough and readable biography is not inspired, but it is solid and respectable, giving it a certain appeal to Housman’s biggest fans. Graves has all the facts of Housman’s life, but never turns the trick of making the man come alive on the page.

Hoagwood, Terrance Allan, A. E. Housman Revisited, Twayne Publishers, 1995.

This book gives a quick, general biography of the poet, and then provides a brief interpretation of the poems in A Shropshire Lad, Last Poems, More Poems, and Additional Poems. This is a very useful source for any student doing a comparison of two or more of Housman’s works.

Parkenham, Thomas, The Boer War, Random House, 1979.

A history of the Boer war that provides a good sense of the British mindset at the turn of the century, when Housman’s verse first caught the public’s attention. War historians will love this book, and anyone doing research on the times ought to take a look at it.

Wilbur, Richard, “Round About a Poem of Housman’s,” in A. E. Housman: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Christopher Ricks, Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1968, pp. 85-105.

Wilbur, a great poet himself, relates his own experience in World War II to Housman’s poem “Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries,” and quickly dissolves into a twenty-page analysis of the poem.

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