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‘When I was one and twenty’ by Housman, is a well-balanced poem that expresses both a moral and light-hearted lesson of life. I have chosen to make an edition of this as I found it enjoyable both to read and study. Also, due to my intended audience for this edition, being key stage 3-4 students in the form of a student edition, I feel the poem is sometimes inaccessible for their age, hence why I break the poem down clearly and give definitions for words they may not have come across before such as ‘Rue’ and ‘Tis’. I will also include some interesting facts about the poem; my copy text that was used as the basis of this poem, which collection this poem appears, what others have to say on the text, and of course where to find it.


When I was one-and-twenty [1]
I heard a wise man say,
‘Give crowns and pounds and guineas
But not your heart away; [2]

Give pearls away and rubies
But keep your fancy free.’ [3]
But I was one-and-twenty,
No use to talk to me. [4]

When I was one-and-twenty
I heard him say again,
‘The heart out of the bosom
Was never given in vain; [5]
’T is [6] paid with sighs a plenty
And sold for endless rue.’ [7]
And I am two-and-twenty,
And oh, ’t is true, ’t is true. [8]

[1] Starting the poem off with ‘when’ gives us a clear impression that the narrator will be drawing on a key memory in the narrator’s life, which he says was when he was twenty one.

[2] This first stanza tells us plenty about the theme of the poem, which in this case is love and romance. Who the ‘wise man’ was is kept ambiguous as the identity of this figure is not relevant to the tale. However, this does not mean that this ambiguity is not significant. Commencing any story with an ambiguity makes it automatically relative to any individual reading the poem. For example, if today a young man has his heart broken, this poem can be transferable to his situation. This first stanza also shows us that any amount of material goods given to a potential lover is a much better option than investing your own heart at first. So the first stanza introduces us to the subject at hand, which is a young individual who is remembering the words of a wise man, giving us the sense that he has done the opposite to the advice. The meter used in this stanza as well as throughout the rest of the poem is a heptameter (7 syllables) followed by a hexameter (6 syllables). The lines that are hexameter use an iambic trimeter (a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable three times in a row). The rhyme scheme throughout is somewhat irregular but consistent in that irregularity; the first line does not rhyme with the third but the second line always rhymes with the fourth. This is also true for the final stanza which is an octave (8 lined stanza); the sixth line rhymes with the eighth.

[3] This is a basic repeat of lines three and four. However here, the narrator has named materials more precious than ‘crowns, pounds and guineas’ giving us a sense of escalation in the tone of regret of the narration.

[4] Here the narrator openly admits their naivety and poor attitude towards this good advice, which does increase our suspicions of the narrator doing contrary to the advice. Housman is gradually escalating the suspense by introducing the narrator’s ignorance at twenty one, so as the reader we are no longer invited to feel empathetic towards the narrator, as his ignorance is already acknowledged by himself.

[5] At this point in the poem we can see that the first line is repeated again, which gives the impression that the poem functions as two octaves, contrary to how it is actually presented in two quartets and one octave. The significance of emphasising repetition throughout this poem is that this poem serves as a reminder to himself and the reader of listening to the wise; a failure to heed those words will cause a later calamity to oneself.

[6] Meaning “it is”. Editions released after 1906 were changed to “tis” being one word.

[7] Here the narrator is listing the cost of giving a heart away. We see here a clear distinction between material and personal expenditure; materialistic items can be given with making no real loss, once compared to that of a personal tribute, like ones heart, which is the example of the poem. “Sold for endless rue” meaning your heart given with endless regret.

[8] Here the narrator confirms all of the pent-up suspicion of the reader by moving to the present and revealing his age of when his narration takes place. The narrator expresses the final line of the poem using irony in relation to the subject whilst adding a comedic value to an otherwise serious subject matter. This final line also echoes the narration of line thirteen as the reader is almost invited to read the line whilst sighing. This creates the intended impression that the narrator is now twenty two and he did not heed the advice of the wise man when he was twenty one.


Some Notes on Publication and Reception

The edition I used as my copy text for A. E. Housman’s poem can be found at Archive.org, as part of the collection A Shropshire lad. I chose the 1906 edition of the poem published by John Lane Company as unfortunately, due to limited access, this was the earliest copy I had access too, even though the manuscript edition was released in 1896 (you can see the whole list of editions here).

A Shropshire Lad is one of Housman’s finest collections of poetry, where he talks on the romances and losses of male youths of Shropshire during a time of a looming war. The most interesting fact about this collection is that Housman himself was not from Shropshire, according to Anthony Daniels, in actuality he was ‘born in neighbouring Worcestershire’ and never lived in the ‘county that he celebrated’. (2014, New Criterion) Which does raise questions as to the authenticity of the information that Housman is delivering in this collection. Having said this, Housman was referred to as the ‘poet of Shropshire’ after the success of publishing this collection, which would understandably lead the public to assume that he himself is from Shropshire. For an in depth biography on Housman take a look on poetryfoundation.org. After Housman had completed the collection, there was a seemingly difficult struggle in having it published, as it got rejected by Housman’s initial attempt with the Macmillan Company, before Kegan Paul agreed to publish the text. The collection didn’t sell so well upon its release. However, once it was republished by Grant Richards, in his edition of 1897 pre-dating the second Boer war, business had begun to pick up and even more so during the first world war; his description of free male youths living in a rural setting connected with many people during such a time of hardship and calamity.

‘When I was One and Twenty’ being one of Housman’s famous poems from the collection had attracted some attention from the musical industry as composer George Butterworth and others saw a folk-song like tone within the sixty three poems of the collection. Butterworth himself composed an eleven song setting of Housman’s poetry including ‘When I was One and Twenty‘. Composers like Butterworth only helped increase the popularity of the collection and made it more accessible to the whole public. This, in turn, gave Housman a great legacy; one that resulted in him being respected and well known in many fields of academia.

housmanhttp://www.onlinesheetmusic.com/six-songs-from-a-shropshire-lad-no-2-when-i-was-one-and-twenty-p273668.aspx

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