The poem consists of two rimed stanzas of eight lines each. The rime scheme is ABCBCDAD in the first stanza and ABCBADAD in the second stanza. The end rhymes in the poem are considered perfect or full rhymes, such as in “say” (line 2) and “away” (line 4). 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. The poem also has certain rhythm – each of even-numbered lines contains six syllables and each of the odd-numbered lines contains seven syllables – giving the poem a musicality. All of the even-numbered lines of this poem contain three segment - which is called iambic trimester – and all of the odd-numbered lines of this poem contain one extra unaccented syllable in the final segment, creating what is called feminine ending.
As I said the poem begins with the speaker recounting the advice given to him from an older man. Housman’s use of “one-and-twenty” (line 1) instead of twenty-one contributes to the lyrical style of the poem as well as the assonance “Give crowns and pounds and guineas” (line 3), and alliteration “But keep your fancy free” (line 6). Advice given to a youth is a notice in the form of a warning, 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. The inherent message in the warning is that though you need money to buy food and shelter “Give crowns and pounds and guineas, / But not your heart away; / Give pearls away and rubies / But keep your fancy free” (line 3-6.), it would be better to go without these material objects that keep us alive than to suffer in love. The 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” (line 6). The speaker’s use of “but” in “But I was one-and-twenty, / No use to talk to me” (line 7-8) denotes his realization of his youthfulness, thus foreshadowing a later fact.
The second stanza begins with a repetition of the first line of the poem “When I was one-and-twenty” (line 9), denoting that the second stanza will be a continuation of the ideas first presented in the first stanza. The speaker tells us that he was warned more than once “I heard him say again” (line 10) substantiates this notion. On the one hand, Houseman uses the word “paid” in line 13, continuing the imagery of material objects in contrast with love - nothing is harder to give away than one’s heart “The heart out of the bosom / Was never given in vain / Tis paid with sighs a plenty / And sold for endless rue” (line 11-14). Falling in love, on the other hand, does take one’s freedom, and therefore leaves a person in misery, or “endless rue” (line 14). The final lines of the poem Housman completes the speaker’s monologue with the wise man’s warnings. Ironically, just one year older “And I am two-and-twenty” (line 15) and apparently now more experienced, speaker suggests the intensity of the woe and sorrow felt, while begins his expression with the word “Oh” (line 16) and repeats the phrase “’Tis true, ‘tis true” (line 16).
The message of this poem seems to be that the effect of surviving one’s (first) love is to be elevated into the ranks of wise people who have already seen the light. Both stanzas are very similar, talking of the same subject and using similar language. However, in the first stanza, the speaker comes off as a brash youth “I was one-and-twenty, / No use to talk to me” (line 7-8) while in the second stanza, Housman makes it clear that with age the speaker has gained maturity and learned a valuable lesson about life and love “I am two-and-twenty, / And oh, ‘tis true, ‘tis true” (line 15-16). The idea of money is an interesting way to explain the trials of love, using money-language: “crowns, pound, guineas, pearls, rubies, paid and sold”. Nevertheless, a young man, according to the “wise man” must guard against having his life taken over by his material possessions and other’s opinions, but his mental and emotional life.
Works cited and consulted
A.E. Housman. “When I Was One-and-Twenty”. 20th Century English Poetry (ed. V. Kennedy). 2007. University of Maribor. Faculty of Arts.
“A.E. Housman. ”Poets.org. 18 November 2008.
“Love Poem by A.E. Housman: When I was one-and-twenty. ” 18 November 2008.
“When I Was One-and-Twenty. ” Answers.com. 18 November 2008.